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There's a widely-held belief [example] that a rat will starve itself to death if given a lever to press that will stimulate some "pleasure center" via electrodes implanted in its brain. Supposedly, the rat gets so fixated with pressing the lever that it won't interrupt this activity in order to eat, and hence the starvation.

I find it hard to believe that any rats have actually done this, so I looked into it a bit.

I found references to an experiment performed by James Olds and Peter Milner in 1954. Their rats spent lots of time pressing their levers, certainly. But they didn't starve to death; they were removed from the experimental apparatus for fear that they might, which is not quite the same thing, and is somewhat inconclusive.

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    I suspect there is nothing more to add here; you've already got the answer. You found the original source, and people are slightly modifying it in the retelling as they often do. What evidence could we give to satisfy you this was the case? – Oddthinking Jan 13 at 1:25
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    Note that any experiment that intentionally (and successfully) sought to prove this assertion would be judged inhumane and therefore would be forbidden by modern ethical standards for animal experiments. – Daniel R Hicks Jan 13 at 3:19
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    @Daniel R Hicks at least I hope so – Alchimista Jan 13 at 12:35
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    @stijn - But an experiment whose sole purpose was to cause rats to starve themselves to death with no "redeeming social value" is highly questionable. – Daniel R Hicks Jan 13 at 18:09
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    @DanielRHicks certainly questionable yes. Still interesting though, as similar behaviour can be witnessed in the worst drug addicts and research might (or might not) provide insight as to why people go there.. – stijn Jan 13 at 19:27
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A version of this claim is present on Wikipedia:

Experiments have shown rats will forgo food to the point of starvation in order to work for brain stimulation or intravenous cocaine when both food and stimulation are offered concurrently for a limited time each day.

Notice "Experiments" plural. The sources apparently are:

Routtenberg & Lindy (1965):

10 rats with electrodes aimed at medial forebrain bundle-posterior hypothalamus (MFB) ... All septal Ss and 4 hypothalamic Ss maintained their weight on this regimen. The other 6 hypothalamic Ss essentially ignored food, spending most of the session self-stimulating, and "self-starved." Self-starving Ss had their electrodes extensively in MFB while surviving hypothalamic Ss had their electrodes in more lateral areas.

Bozarth & Wise (1985):

Laboratory rats were given unlimited access to intravenous cocaine hydrochloride or heroin hydrochloride. ... The mortality rate for 30 days of continuous testing was 36% for animals self-administering heroin and 90% for those self-administering cocaine.

As noted in other experiments, particular conditions are needed to induce such self-starvation in rats.

By the way, it's actually much easier to get a rat to self-starve: Just give them an activity wheel.

A large number of experiments were run in the 1950s and early 1960s to test this theory, as reviewed in Bolles’ influential 1967 book, Theory of Motivation. Many of these experiments measured rates of running as a function of various kinds of food deprivation schedules and, when the experiments were reported, the authors noted—often only in a footnote—that a surprisingly large proportion of rats died in the course of the experiment.

  • Boredom kills, even rats. But any school pupil could tell you that. – Benjol 13 hours ago

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