Rat Cognitive Effort Task (rCET)

Hard work is considered key to future success. In education and workplace settings, greater cognitive effort (i.e. studying harder in the former and taking on demanding projects in the latter) is associated with advantageous outcomes (better job prospects, promotions, etc), and so deciding between options that differ in the cognitive effort required has important individual and societal consequences. Previously, animal models of effort-based choice have been developed to assess the neural substrates associated with this form of decision making. These paradigms typically have rats scale a barrier in a T-maze versus traverse a flat runway, or press a lever a greater number of times, to receive a larger food reward. Importantly, the physical effort required in these tasks (climbing a barrier, repeatedly pressing a lever) is fundamentally different than the cognitive effort more commonly observed in human decision-making, and it is unclear whether the two forms of effort-based decision making are mediated by similar processes. To address this question, our lab has developed the rat cognitive effort task (rCET), which is based on the validated 5-choice serial reaction time task. In a given trial, rats must choose between easy or hard visuospatial discriminations, where hard trials are rewarded with twice the number of sugar pellets. Interestingly, individual choice of hard-versus-easy trials is consistent across sessions, allowing us to categorize rats into “workers” and “slackers”. Thus, we have begun to probe the neurotransmitter systems  and brain networks mediating cognitive effort-based decision-making, and how baseline choice behaviour mediates these effects. Current work in the lab is focused on fully characterizing the neurotransmitter systems involved in rCET performance (including cholinergic and endocannabinoid systems), and future work aims to reveal how different areas of the corticostriatal circuitry interact to guide decision making on this task.


Hosking JG, Lam FC, Winstanley CA.Nicotine Increases Impulsivity and Decreases Willingness to Exert Cognitive Effort despite Improving Attention in “Slacker” Rats: Insights into Cholinergic Regulation of Cost/Benefit Decision Making. (2014). PLoS One.

Hosking JG, Floresco SB, Winstanley CA.Dopamine Antagonism Decreases Willingness to Expend Physical, But Not Cognitive, Effort: A Comparison of Two Rodent Cost/Benefit Decision-Making Tasks. (2014). Neuropsychopharmacology.

Hosking JG, Cocker PJ, Winstanley CA.Dissociable contributions of anterior cingulate cortex and basolateral amygdala on a rodent cost/benefit decision-making task of cognitive effort. (2014). Neuropsychopharmacology.

Cocker PJ, Hosking JG, Benoit J, Winstanley CA. Sensitivity to cognitive effort mediates psychostimulant effects on a novel rodent cost/benefit decision-making task. (2012). Neuropsychopharmacology.