Many debilitating psychiatric conditions, including drug addiction, are characterized by poor decision making and maladaptive risk-taking. Recent research has begun to probe this relationship to determine how brain mechanisms mediating risk-taking become compromised after chronic drug use. Currently, however, the majority of work in this field has used male subjects. Given the well-established sex differences in drug addiction, it is conceivable that such differences are also evident in risk-based decision making. To test this possibility, male and female adult rats were trained in a risky decision making task (RDT), in which they chose between a small, "safe" food reward and a large, "risky" food reward accompanied by an increasing probability of mild footshock punishment. Consistent with findings in human subjects, females were more risk averse, choosing the large, risky reward significantly less than males. This effect was not due to differences in shock reactivity or body weight, and risk-taking in females was not modulated by estrous phase. Systemic amphetamine administration decreased risk-taking in both males and females; however, females exhibited greater sensitivity to amphetamine, suggesting that dopaminergic signaling may partially account for sex differences in risk-taking. Finally, although males displayed greater instrumental responding for food reward, reward choice in the RDT was not affected by satiation, indicating that differences in motivation to obtain food reward cannot fully account for sex differences in risk-taking. These results should prove useful for developing targeted treatments for psychiatric conditions in which risk-taking is altered and that are known to differentially affect males and females.
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