Royce Shook

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Time keeps slipping into the future

As I get older, the mysteries of the mind grow more interesting. One of the mysteries that puzzles me is how do we understand the passage of time. Some days’ time goes by so slowly (The Righteous Brothers)  yet on other days’ time keeps slipping into the future (Steve Miller Band). I have as I imagine you have, sat and watched time slowly slide by and at other times time rushes past. So, what do the Scientist say about how we view time.

The ability to tell and keep time plays an integral role in what we do every day - from recognizing speech patterns to creating music. Yet, no one knows how the brain keeps time. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, have begun to unravel the mystery by showing that a network of neurons kept alive in a petri dish could be "trained" to keep time. The research will enhance understanding of how the brain works and how certain conditions that have resulted in time-keeping deficits, such as dyslexia, could be treated.

The neurons, derived from the brain of a rat, were trained to fire for specific amounts of time, depending on how long they were stimulated by electric current. The team stimulated two sets of neurons with simple patterns, which consisted of electric stimuli separated by different intervals lasting from a 20th of a second up to half a second. After two hours of electric stimulation, the scientists tested to see how each cell responded to just a single electrical pulse. In the networks trained with a short interval, the activity lasted for a short period of time. Conversely, in the networks trained with a long interval, network activity lasted for a longer amount of time. Based on the three-year study, scientists have hypothesized that the ability to distinguish time is more generalized in the brain, meaning that pockets of neurons throughout the brain can keep time on their own without tapping into a centralized area.

The researchers used an electrical current to stimulate networks of cultured brain cells, similar to giving the cells an electric shock. While these networks contained tens of thousands of neurons, they make up only a small fraction of the 100 million or so neurons present in a rat brain. (The human brain contains about 100 billion neurons.)

The cells were stimulated at specific time intervals, ranging from one-twentieth of a second (50 milliseconds) to half a second (500 milliseconds).

After two hours of cell shocking, the scientists tested to see how each cell responded to just a single electrical pulse. They saw the network activity — the way the neurons fire, and whether this firing spreads or propagates throughout the network — differed depending on the training interval.

In the networks that had been trained on the short intervals, say 50 ms, the activity lasted for about 50 ms before dying out. But in the networks trained at 500 ms, the activity lasted for longer, around 500 ms.

Scientists don't know whether this ability to tell time depends on a single part of the brain, a sort of centralized clock, or whether the function is more generalized, so networks of neurons throughout the brain are inherently capable of keeping time on their own without an orchestrator.

The results give weight to the latter hypothesis since the segregated neurons could learn to keep time without tapping into a centralized brain area.

Ultimately, learning how the brain tells time will help us better understand how the brain works, which is important for figuring out what goes wrong when the brain has problems, Interestingly, there are no known diseases in which a person's ability to keep time is completely lost. This is in contrast to something like forming memories, where lesions in certain parts of the brain can prevent people from making long-term memories. This further supports the idea that timing keeping is generalized rather than centralized.

The study was published in 2011 in the Journal Nature Neuroscience


Time keeps slipping into the future

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