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The happiness project | Science

In 2010, cancer biologist Lei Cao—inspired by a family member who had died of cancer—wondered whether she could combat it by looking beyond drugs or genes. Her team at OSU created a 1-square-meter enclosure filled with so many mazes, running wheels, and bright red, blue, and orange igloos that her daughter dubbed it “Disneyland for Mice.” <img class="fragment-image" src="https://d2ufo47lrtsv5s.cloudfront.net/content/sci/359/6376/624/F3.medium.gif"/> A fish at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor gets to choose between an empty tank and one filled with marbles. PHOTO: AUSTIN THOMASON/MICHIGAN PHOTOGRAPHY When injected with cancer cells, animals housed there developed tumors 80% smaller than those in control mice, or no tumors at all. Cao even discovered a possible mechanism: A stimulating environment seemed to activate the brain's hypothalamus, which regulates hormones that affect everything from mood to cancer proliferation. “We showed that there's a hard science behind enrichment,” she says. “You can't just treat the body—you have to treat the mind.”

rat enrichment

Inspired by research that showed enrichment could spark the growth of new neurons, he provided the rodents with cardboard for making nests, brightly colored balls for play, and ladders and ropes to climb. Remarkably, the animals were much slower to develop symptoms of a Huntington-like disease than their counterparts in standard housing—the first demonstration that enrichment could significantly influence neurological disorders.

The happiness project | Science

Today, lab mice live in shoebox-size cages hundreds of thousands of times smaller than their natural ranges, and rats can't forage or even stand upright. Both spend their days blasted by ventilation and bright fluorescent lighting that disrupts their day-night cycles. “We're doing the exact opposite of what we should be doing to make these animals happy,” Garner says. Lab animals tend to be obese, have weak immune systems, and develop cancer—all before scientists do any experiments on them.