Uncertainty exposure causes behavioural sensitization and increases risky decision-making in male rats: toward modelling gambling disorder

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An animal model of gambling disorder, previously known as pathological gambling, could advance our understanding of the disorder and help with treatment development. We hypothesized that repeated exposure to uncertainty during gambling induces behavioural and dopamine (DA) sensitization — similar to chronic exposure to drugs of abuse. Uncertainty exposure (UE) may also increase risky decision-making in an animal model of gambling disorder.


Male Sprague Dawley rats received 56 UE sessions, during which animals responded for saccharin according to an unpredictable, variable ratio schedule of reinforcement (VR group). Control animals responded on a predictable, fixed ratio schedule (FR group). Rats yoked to receive unpredictable reward were also included (Y group). Animals were then tested on the Rat Gambling Task (rGT), an analogue of the Iowa Gambling Task, to measure decision-making.


Compared with the FR group, the VR and Y groups experienced a greater locomotor response following administration of amphetamine. On the rGT, the FR and Y groups preferred the advantageous options over the risky, disadvantageous options throughout testing (40 sessions). However, rats in the VR group did not have a significant preference for the advantageous options during sessions 20–40. Amphetamine had a small, but significant, effect on decision-making only in the VR group. After rGT testing, only the VR group showed greater hyperactivity following administration of amphetamine compared with the FR group.


Reward uncertainty was the only gambling feature modelled.


Actively responding for uncertain reward likely sensitized the DA system and impaired the ability to make optimal decisions, modelling some aspects of gambling disorder.

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