Scientists Uncover a Method to Influence the Brain’s Perception of Time

by Henrik Andersen
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Time Perception Manipulation

Scientists Uncover a Method to Influence the Brain’s Perception of Time

The Learning Lab at Champalimaud Research has made a groundbreaking discovery, shedding light on the brain’s internal clockwork and its influence on behavior. Through innovative experiments with rats, they successfully manipulated neural activity patterns, distorting the rats’ perception of time duration. This research not only challenges conventional notions of time measurement but also carries potential therapeutic implications for conditions like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, as well as applications in robotics and learning algorithms.

Throughout history, from the contemplations of Aristotle to Einstein’s theory of relativity, the nature of time and how we perceive it has fascinated humanity. Einstein’s theory suggested that time could stretch and contract, a concept known as time dilation. Similarly, our neural circuits can stretch and compress our subjective experience of time. As Einstein famously put it, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute.”

In a recent study published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers from Champalimaud Research’s Learning Lab artificially altered patterns of neural activity in rats, affecting their judgment of time duration. The focus of the study was the timescale of seconds to minutes, during which much of our everyday behavior unfolds, from simple actions like waiting at a stop light to complex tasks like playing sports.

Contrary to the precise ticking of a computer’s centralized clock, our brains maintain a decentralized and adaptable sense of time. The “population clock” hypothesis suggests that the brain keeps time by relying on consistent patterns of activity in groups of neurons during specific behaviors. This is akin to dropping a stone into a pond and observing the ripples spreading out, allowing one to deduce when and where the stone was dropped.

The researchers employed temperature as a tool to establish causation in their experiments. By using a custom thermoelectric device to warm or cool specific brain regions in rats while recording neural activity, they found that temperature manipulation affected the rats’ time judgments without disrupting the underlying pattern of activity. Cooling the brain region dilated the pattern of activity, while warming contracted it.

Interestingly, the study revealed that the striatum, a deep brain region critical for motor control, is primarily responsible for determining “what” and “when” to do something, while the ongoing control of movements is left to other brain structures, potentially the cerebellum. Understanding this division of labor between brain systems may help explain movement disorders like Parkinson’s and cerebellar ataxia.

The implications of this research are substantial. It provides valuable insights into the causal relationship between neural activity and timing functions, opening new avenues for developing therapies for conditions involving time-related symptoms and compromised striatum. Furthermore, the findings could impact the design of algorithms used in robotics and learning.

As the researchers continue to unravel the mysteries surrounding time perception and neural activity, they look forward to exploring other brain circuits responsible for creating these timekeeping patterns and understanding their broader contributions to our adaptive responses in the environment.

In conclusion, this groundbreaking study has unlocked exciting possibilities for understanding and manipulating the brain’s perception of time, with profound implications for medicine, technology, and our fundamental understanding of human cognition.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Time Perception Manipulation

Q: What did the scientists discover in the study?

A: The scientists at Champalimaud Research’s Learning Lab discovered a way to manipulate the brain’s perception of time by controlling neural activity patterns in rats. This manipulation altered the rats’ judgment of time duration.

Q: What are the potential implications of this research?

A: The research has significant implications for various areas. It could lead to novel therapeutic targets for diseases like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, which involve time-related symptoms and compromised striatum. Additionally, it may influence the design of robotics and learning algorithms.

Q: How did the researchers manipulate neural activity in the rats?

A: The researchers used temperature as a tool to manipulate neural activity in the rats. They employed a custom thermoelectric device to warm or cool specific brain regions, which resulted in alterations in the rats’ time judgments.

Q: What is the “population clock” hypothesis?

A: The “population clock” hypothesis suggests that the brain keeps time by relying on consistent patterns of activity evolving in groups of neurons during specific behaviors. This mechanism allows the brain to maintain a decentralized and adaptable sense of time.

Q: What brain regions are responsible for different aspects of motor control?

A: The study revealed that the striatum, a deep brain region, is primarily responsible for determining “what” and “when” to perform a movement. The ongoing control of movements, on the other hand, is likely governed by other brain structures, potentially the cerebellum.

Q: How might this research contribute to understanding movement disorders?

A: The findings could shed light on movement disorders such as Parkinson’s and cerebellar ataxia. By understanding the roles of different brain systems in motor control, researchers may gain insights into the mechanisms underlying these disorders and potential therapeutic approaches.

Q: What are the broader implications of this research beyond neuroscience?

A: Apart from neuroscience, this research could have applications in robotics and learning algorithms. Understanding how neural activity affects timing and decision-making could lead to more sophisticated algorithms in these fields.

Q: What questions remain unanswered from the study?

A: While the study has made significant progress in understanding time perception and neural activity, there are still mysteries to unravel. Researchers are curious about the brain circuits responsible for creating timekeeping patterns and how these patterns contribute to other cognitive functions beyond time perception.

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