Prefrontal Cortical Inactivations Decrease Willingness to Expend Cognitive Effort on a Rodent Cost/Benefit Decision-Making Task

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Personal success often necessitates expending greater effort for greater reward but, equally important, also requires judicious use of our limited cognitive resources (e.g., attention). Previous animal models have shown that the prelimbic (PL) and infralimbic (IL) regions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) are not involved in (physical) effort-based choice, whereas human studies have demonstrated PFC contributions to (mental) effort. Here, we utilize the rat Cognitive Effort Task (rCET) to probe PFC's role in effort-based decision making. In the rCET, animals can choose either an easy trial, where the attentional demand is low but the reward (sugar) is small or a difficult trial on which both the attentional demand and reward are greater. Temporary inactivation of PL and IL decreased all animals’ willingness to expend mental effort and increased animals’ distractibility; PL inactivations more substantially affected performance (i.e., attention), whereas IL inactivations increased motor impulsivity. These data imply that the PFC contributes to attentional resources, and when these resources are diminished, animals shift their choice (via other brain regions) accordingly. Thus, one novel therapeutic approach to deficits in effort expenditure may be to focus on the resources that such decision making requires, rather than the decision-making process per se.

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