The neural basis of temporal processing

Annu Rev Neurosci. 2004;27:307-40. doi: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144247.


A complete understanding of sensory and motor processing requires characterization of how the nervous system processes time in the range of tens to hundreds of milliseconds (ms). Temporal processing on this scale is required for simple sensory problems, such as interval, duration, and motion discrimination, as well as complex forms of sensory processing, such as speech recognition. Timing is also required for a wide range of motor tasks from eyelid conditioning to playing the piano. Here we review the behavioral, electrophysiological, and theoretical literature on the neural basis of temporal processing. These data suggest that temporal processing is likely to be distributed among different structures, rather than relying on a centralized timing area, as has been suggested in internal clock models. We also discuss whether temporal processing relies on specialized neural mechanisms, which perform temporal computations independent of spatial ones. We suggest that, given the intricate link between temporal and spatial information in most sensory and motor tasks, timing and spatial processing are intrinsic properties of neural function, and specialized timing mechanisms such as delay lines, oscillators, or a spectrum of different time constants are not required. Rather temporal processing may rely on state-dependent changes in network dynamics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Clocks / physiology
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological
  • Motor Skills / physiology
  • Nerve Net / anatomy & histology
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Neural Pathways / anatomy & histology
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Perception / physiology
  • Space Perception / physiology
  • Time Perception / physiology*