Neuroanatomical and neurochemical substrates of timing

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2011 Jan;36(1):3-25. doi: 10.1038/npp.2010.113. Epub 2010 Jul 28.


We all have a sense of time. Yet, there are no sensory receptors specifically dedicated for perceiving time. It is an almost uniquely intangible sensation: we cannot see time in the way that we see color, shape, or even location. So how is time represented in the brain? We explore the neural substrates of metrical representations of time such as duration estimation (explicit timing) or temporal expectation (implicit timing). Basal ganglia (BG), supplementary motor area, cerebellum, and prefrontal cortex have all been linked to the explicit estimation of duration. However, each region may have a functionally discrete role and will be differentially implicated depending upon task context. Among these, the dorsal striatum of the BG and, more specifically, its ascending nigrostriatal dopaminergic pathway seems to be the most crucial of these regions, as shown by converging functional neuroimaging, neuropsychological, and psychopharmacological investigations in humans, as well as lesion and pharmacological studies in animals. Moreover, neuronal firing rates in both striatal and interconnected frontal areas vary as a function of duration, suggesting a neurophysiological mechanism for the representation of time in the brain, with the excitatory-inhibitory balance of interactions among distinct subtypes of striatal neuron serving to fine-tune temporal accuracy and precision.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Animals
  • Brain / anatomy & histology*
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Chemistry / physiology*
  • Dopamine / physiology
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Neostriatum / anatomy & histology
  • Neostriatum / chemistry
  • Neostriatum / physiology
  • Neural Pathways / anatomy & histology
  • Neural Pathways / chemistry
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Time Perception / physiology*


  • Dopamine