PLoS One. 2017 Jul 14;12(7):e0180907. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0180907.
It has been hypothesized that brain development during adolescence perturbs reward processing in a way that may ultimately contribute to the risky decision making associated with this stage of life, particularly in young males. To investigate potential reward dysfunction during adolescence, Experiment 1 examined palatable fluid intake in rats as a function of age and sex. During a series of twice-weekly test sessions, non-food-deprived rats were given the opportunity to voluntarily consume a highly palatable sweetened condensed milk (SCM) solution. We found that adolescent male, but not female, rats exhibited a pronounced, transient increase in SCM intake (normalized by body weight) that was centered around puberty. Additionally, adult females consumed more SCM than adult males and adolescent females. Using a well-established analytical framework to parse the influences of reward palatability and satiety on the temporal structure of feeding behavior, we found that palatability-driven intake at the outset of the meal was significantly elevated in adolescent males, relative to the other groups. Furthermore, although we found that there were some group differences in the onset of satiety, they were unlikely to contribute to differences in intake. Experiment 2 confirmed that adolescent male rats exhibit elevated palatable fluid consumption, relative to adult males, even when a non-caloric saccharin solution was used as the taste stimulus, demonstrating that these results were unlikely to be related to age-related differences in metabolic need. These findings suggest that elevated palatable food intake during adolescence is sex specific and driven by a fundamental change in reward processing. As adolescent risk taking has been hypothesized as a potential result of hypersensitivity to and overvaluation of appetitive stimuli, individual differences in reward palatability may factor into individual differences in adolescent risky decision making.