Neuronal correlates of visual time perception at brief timescales

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Jan 22;110(4):1506-11. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1217177110. Epub 2013 Jan 7.


Successful interaction with the world depends on accurate perception of the timing of external events. Neurons at early stages of the primate visual system represent time-varying stimuli with high precision. However, it is unknown whether this temporal fidelity is maintained in the prefrontal cortex, where changes in neuronal activity generally correlate with changes in perception. One reason to suspect that it is not maintained is that humans experience surprisingly large fluctuations in the perception of time. To investigate the neuronal correlates of time perception, we recorded from neurons in the prefrontal cortex and midbrain of monkeys performing a temporal-discrimination task. Visual time intervals were presented at a timescale relevant to natural behavior (<500 ms). At this brief timescale, neuronal adaptation--time-dependent changes in the size of successive responses--occurs. We found that visual activity fluctuated with timing judgments in the prefrontal cortex but not in comparable midbrain areas. Surprisingly, only response strength, not timing, predicted task performance. Intervals perceived as longer were associated with larger visual responses and shorter intervals with smaller responses, matching the dynamics of adaptation. These results suggest that the magnitude of prefrontal activity may be read out to provide temporal information that contributes to judging the passage of time.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology
  • Evoked Potentials, Visual / physiology
  • Humans
  • Macaca mulatta / physiology*
  • Male
  • Mesencephalon / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Saccades / physiology
  • Time Perception / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*