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Reward-predictive cues elicit excessive reward seeking in adolescent rats


Impulsive behavior during adolescence may stem from developmental imbalances between motivational and cognitive-control systems, producing greater urges to pursue reward and weakened capacities to inhibit such actions. Here, we developed a Pavlovian-instrumental transfer (PIT) protocol to assay rats' ability to suppress cue-motivated reward seeking based on changes in reward expectancy. Traditionally, PIT studies focus on how reward-predictive cues motivate instrumental reward-seeking behavior (lever pressing). However, cues signaling imminent reward delivery also elicit countervailing focal-search responses (food-port entry). We first examined how reward expectancy (cue-reward probability) influences expression of these competing behaviors. Adult male rats increased rates of lever pressing when presented with cues signaling lower probabilities of reward but focused their activity at the food cup on trials with cues that signaled higher probabilities of reward. We then compared adolescent and adult male rats in their responsivity to cues signaling different reward probabilities. In contrast to adults, adolescent rats did not flexibly adjust patterns of responding based on the expected likelihood of reward delivery but increased their rate of lever pressing for both weak and strong cues. These findings indicate that control over cue-motivated behavior is fundamentally dysregulated during adolescence, providing a model for studying neurobiological mechanisms of adolescent impulsivity.

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