Neuronal timescales are functionally dynamic and shaped by cortical microarchitecture

Elife. 2020 Nov 23;9:e61277. doi: 10.7554/eLife.61277.


Complex cognitive functions such as working memory and decision-making require information maintenance over seconds to years, from transient sensory stimuli to long-term contextual cues. While theoretical accounts predict the emergence of a corresponding hierarchy of neuronal timescales, direct electrophysiological evidence across the human cortex is lacking. Here, we infer neuronal timescales from invasive intracranial recordings. Timescales increase along the principal sensorimotor-to-association axis across the entire human cortex, and scale with single-unit timescales within macaques. Cortex-wide transcriptomic analysis shows direct alignment between timescales and expression of excitation- and inhibition-related genes, as well as genes specific to voltage-gated transmembrane ion transporters. Finally, neuronal timescales are functionally dynamic: prefrontal cortex timescales expand during working memory maintenance and predict individual performance, while cortex-wide timescales compress with aging. Thus, neuronal timescales follow cytoarchitectonic gradients across the human cortex and are relevant for cognition in both short and long terms, bridging microcircuit physiology with macroscale dynamics and behavior.

Keywords: computational biology; cortical gradients; functional specialization; human; neuronal timescales; neuroscience; rhesus macaque; spectral analysis; systems biology; transcriptomics.

Plain language summary

The human brain can both quickly react to a fleeting sight, like a changing traffic light, and slowly integrate complex information to form a long-term plan. To mirror these requirements, how long a neuron can be activated for – its ‘timescale’ – varies greatly between cells. A range of timescales has been identified in animal brains, by measuring single neurons at a few different locations. However, a comprehensive study of this property in humans has been hindered by technical and ethical concerns. Without this knowledge, it is difficult to understand the factors that may shape different timescales, and how these can change in response to environmental demands. To investigate this question, Gao et al. used a new computational method to analyse publicly available datasets and calculate neuronal timescales across the human brain. The data were produced using a technique called invasive electrocorticography, where electrodes placed directly on the brain record the total activity of many neurons. This allowed Gao et al. to examine the relationship between timescales and brain anatomy, gene expression, and cognition. The analysis revealed a continuous gradient of neuronal timescales between areas that require neurons to react quickly and those relying on long-term activity. ‘Under the hood’, these timescales were associated with a number of biological processes, such as the activity of genes that shape the nature of the connections between neurons and the amount of proteins that let different charged particles in and out of cells. In addition, the timescales could be flexible: they could lengthen when areas specialised in working memory were actively maintaining information, or shorten with age across many areas of the brain. Ultimately, the technique and findings reported by Gao et al. could have useful applications in the clinic, using neuronal timescale to better understand brain disorders and pinpoint their underlying causes.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aging / physiology
  • Animals
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Electrocorticography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Macaca
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Transcriptome
  • Young Adult