Tech UPTechnologyThis is how the brain perceives time

This is how the brain perceives time

In 2014, Edvard I. Moser, May-Britt Moser and John O’Keefe won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for discovering a series of cells in the entorhinal cortex that make up the positioning system of the brain. It is a set of cells that form a kind of coordinate system that allows us to have the notion of our position in space. Some kind of brain GPS.

Therefore, we already have enough information about space processing. Is there a similar system in our brain to know the time? This is the question asked by the Moser couple and their student Albert Tsao, a doctoral student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, when in 2007 they focused their efforts on studying another group of cells of the entorhinal cortex close to those that make up the spatial positioning system. However, their efforts were unsuccessful, as the cells studied did not appear to follow the same network organization nor did they have a fixed pattern of behavior. “The signal was changing all the time,” explains E. Moser.

There was the key: the signal emitted by the cells of the entorhinal cortex changes over time. “Time is a very dynamic process, it is unique and changing. The network signal changes over time in such a way that it records experiences as unique memories ”.

The team of researchers has just published the results of their work in the journal Nature , and they describe a kind of ‘neural clock’ that records the time associated with each of the experiences we live. ” Our study reveals that the brain perceives time as just another experience ,” explains Tsao. “That is, the network does not code specifically for time, but rather measures a subjective time derived from the continuous flow of experience.” This could explain, perhaps, why depending on what we are doing or what happens to us, the same time interval can fly by or seem eternal.

Mouse experiment

This is preliminary work that has been carried out with laboratory mice. Specifically, they did two tests: in the first, the mice had a series of possible stimuli and activities and were free to carry them out without any conditioning factors. They could run, investigate, and chase pieces of chocolate while visiting outdoor spaces. Throughout the duration of the experiment, the activity of cells in the region of the brain where the sense of time is suspected to reside was recorded. “We observed a unique and singular signal that suggests that, during the two hours that the experiment lasted, the rat had a good sense of time and the temporal sequence of activities,” explains Jørgen Sugar, another of the authors. “We were able to use the time-coding network to track exactly when each event had occurred within the experiment.”

In the second trial, the activities were more structured and the rat was trained to chase pieces of chocolate while turning left or right in a maze. ” In this activity, the time-coding signal already consisted of a set of unique sequences but followed a repetitive and overlapping pattern ,” explains Tsao. “Also, the time signal became more accurate and predictable. The times suggest that the rat had a perfect understanding of the time in each of the laps, but this was more imprecise between laps ”.

In light of the results, the researchers conclude that, by changing the activities and the content of the experiences, the time signal in the studied neural network changes and with it the perception of it itself is modified.

“The activity of these neural networks is so distributed that the mechanism itself underlies the changing connectivity within the networks. The fact that it can be molded into several unique patterns suggests a high level of plasticity, ”says Moser. “These networks and the combination of their structures open up a new field of work and we must pay more attention to them, as they open up a promising field of research for the future.

Reference: Tso et al. 2018. Integrating time from experience in the lateral entorhinal cortex. Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0459-6

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