Sex differences in learning from exploration

Cathy Chen, Evan Knep, Autumn Han, Becket Ebitz, Nicola M. Grissom

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Sex-based modulation of cognitive processes could set the stage for individual differences in vulnerability to neuropsychiatric disorders. While value-based decision making processes in particular have been proposed to be influenced by sex differences, the overall correct performance in decision making tasks often show variable or minimal differences across sexes. Computational tools allow us to uncover latent variables that define different decision making approaches, even in animals with similar correct performance. Here, we quantify sex differences in mice in the latent variables underlying behavior in a classic value-based decision making task: a restless 2-armed bandit. While male and female mice had similar accuracy, they achieved this performance via different patterns of exploration. Male mice tended to make more exploratory choices overall, largely because they appeared to get “stuck” in exploration once they had started. Female mice tended to explore less but learned more quickly during exploration. Together, these results suggest that sex exerts stronger influences on decision making during periods of learning and exploration than during stable choices. Exploration during decision making is altered in people diagnosed with addictions, depression, and neurodevelopmental disabilities, pinpointing the neural mechanisms of exploration as a highly translational avenue for conferring sex-modulated vulnerability to neuropsychiatric diagnoses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere69748
StatePublished - Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by NIMH R01 MH123661, NIMH P50 MH119569, and NIMH T32 training grant MH115886, startup funds from the University of Minnesota (N.M.G.), a Young Investigator Grant from the Brain and Behavior Foundation (R.B.E.), an Unfettered Research Grant from the Mistletoe Foundation (R.B.E.), and Fonds de Recherche du Québec Santé, Chercheur-Boursier Junior 1, #284309 (R.B.E). Thank you to Briana E. Mork and Lisa S. Curry-Pochy for help improve this manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, eLife Sciences Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.


  • Animal models
  • Decision making
  • Exploration
  • Exploration-exploitation tradeoff
  • Reinforcement learning
  • Sex differences

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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