Groups of neurons that precisely keep time have been discovered in the primate brain by a team of researchers that includes Dezhe Jin, assistant professor of physics at Penn State University and two neuroscientists from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "This research is the first time that precise time-keeping activities have been identified in recordings of neuron activity," Jin said. The time-keeping neurons are in two interconnected brain regions, the prefrontal cortex and the striatum, both of which are known to play critical roles in learning, movement, and thought control.
The timing of individual actions, like speaking, driving a car, or throwing a football, requires very precise control. Although the lives of humans and other primates are extremely dependent on this remarkable capability, surprisingly little has been known about how brain cells keep track of time. This new discovery, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is an important step toward answering this fundamental question.
To make the discovery, Jin analyzed thousands of neural-activity recordings made by Naotaka Fujii, from RIKEN, who then was a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Ann Graybiels, an institute professor at MIT. Jin developed the computational tools that enabled the discovery of the novel results to emerge from the team's vast data set.
"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
|Contact: Barbara K. Kennedy|