Background: Decision making in complex and conflicting situations, as measured in the widely used Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), can be profoundly impaired in psychiatric disorders, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, drug addiction, and also in healthy individuals for whom immediate gratification prevails over long-term gain. The cognitive processes underlying these deficits are poorly understood, in part due to a lack of suitable animal models assessing complex decision making with good construct validity.
Methods: We developed a rat gambling task analogous to the IGT that tracks, for the first time, the ongoing decision process within a single session in an operant cage. Rats could choose between various options. Disadvantageous options, as opposed to advantageous ones, offered bigger immediate food reward but were followed by longer, unpredictable penalties (time-out).
Results: The majority of rats can evaluate and deduce favorable options more or less rapidly according to task complexity, whereas others systematically choose disadvantageously. These interindividual differences are stable over time and do not depend on task difficulty or on the level of food restriction. We find that poor decision making does not result from a failure to acquire relevant information but from hypersensitivity to reward and higher risk taking in anxiogenic situations.
Conclusions: These results suggest that rats, as well as human poor performers, share similar traits to those observed in decision-making related psychiatric disorders. These traits could constitute risk factors of developing such disorders. The rapid identification of poor decision makers using the rat gambling task should promote the discovery of the specific brain dysfunctions that cause maladapted decision making.