Age and Sex Differences in Behavioral Flexibility, Sensitivity to Reward Value, and Risky Decision-Making

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Abstract

Compared with adults, adolescent behavior is often characterized by reduced behavioral flexibility, increased sensitivity to reward, and increased likelihood to take risks. These traits, which have been hypothesized to confer heightened vulnerability to psychopathologies such as substance use disorders (SUDs), have been the focus of studies in laboratory animal models that seek to understand their neural underpinnings. However, rodent studies to date have typically used only males and have adopted standard methodological practices (e.g., weight loss inducing food restriction) that are likely to have a disparate impact on adolescents compared with adults. Here, we used adolescent and adult Sprague–Dawley rats of both sexes to study instrumental behavior tasks that assess behavioral flexibility (strategy shifting and reversal learning; Experiment 1), sensitivity to reward value (outcome devaluation; Experiment 2), and risky decision making (probability discounting; Experiment 3). In Experiment 1, we found that adolescents were faster to acquire reversal learning than adults but there were no differences in strategy shifting. In Experiments 2 and 3, adolescents and adults were equally sensitive to changes in reward value and exhibited similar reductions in preference for a large reward when reinforcement probability was decreased. However, adolescents responded more efficiently and earned reinforcers at a higher rate than their same-sex, adult counterparts. Together, these findings provide only limited support for the existence of an “adolescent-typical” phenotype in Sprague–Dawley rats and instead suggest that age differences in the expression of these behaviors may depend on conditions such as pubertal status and motivational state.

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