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Sex-dependent effects of chronic intermittent voluntary alcohol consumption on attentional, not motivational, measures during probabilistic learning and reversal.



Forced alcohol (ethanol, EtOH) exposure has been shown to cause significant impairments on reversal learning, a widely-used assay of cognitive flexibility, specifically on fully-predictive, deterministic versions of this task. However, previous studies have not adequately considered voluntary EtOH consumption and sex effects on probabilistic reversal learning. The present study aimed to fill this gap in the literature.


Male and female Long-Evans rats underwent either 10 weeks of voluntary intermittent 20% EtOH access or water only (H2O) access. Rats were then pretrained to initiate trials and learn stimulus-reward associations via touchscreen response, and subsequently required to select between two visual stimuli, rewarded with probability 0.70 or 0.30. In the final phase, reinforcement contingencies were reversed.


We found significant sex differences on several EtOH-drinking variables, with females reaching a higher maximum EtOH consumption, exhibiting more high-drinking days, and escalating their EtOH at a quicker rate compared to males. During early abstinence, EtOH drinkers (and particularly EtOH-drinking females) made more initiation omissions and were slower to initiate trials than H2O drinking controls, especially during pretraining. A similar pattern in trial initiations was also observed in discrimination, but not in reversal learning. EtOH drinking rats were unaffected in their reward collection and stimulus response times, indicating intact motivation and motor responding. Although there were sex differences in discrimination and reversal phases, performance improved over time. We also observed sex-independent drinking group differences in win-stay and lose-shift strategies specific to the reversal phase.


Females exhibit increased vulnerability to EtOH effects in early learning: there were sex-dependent EtOH effects on attentional measures during pretraining and discrimination phases. We also found sex-independent EtOH effects on exploration strategies during reversal. Future studies should aim to uncover the neural mechanisms for changes in attention and exploration in both acute and prolonged EtOH withdrawal.

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