A team of researchers, including Dezhe Jin, assistant professor of physics at Penn State University and neuroscientists from MIT and Japan’s RIKEN Brain Science Institute have discovered that specific neurons in primate brains keep track of time. This knowledge could help in creating cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s, in which the ability to control the timing of movements is impaired.
“The key finding is that neurons in the prefrontal cortex and the striatum encode the time information associated with sensory cues,” Jin explained. “Visual cues, for example, elicit a variety of responses in a particular population of neurons. We found that the brain is able to tell the passage of time from the visual cues because different neurons are active at different times. Most remarkably we found that there are neurons that are active at precise times after a particular visual cue, and these neurons act like clocks that mark time.”
Their study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, involved seeing which neurons are active at a given time during a monkey activity test. The researchers discovered that specific neurons consistently fired, like a stopwatch, at specific times once the test began; at 100 milliseconds, 110 milliseconds, 150 milliseconds, etc. This encoding of time likely helps us react to situations that require precise control, and once it is better understood, it may lead to neural prosthetic devices that can control impaired movement in Parkinson’s and similar diseases.
[from Penn State News]