Dean Buonomano: TRF1 Speaker Q&A

Dean Buonomano is Professor at the Departments of Neurobiology and Psychology, University of California Los Angeles. At the 1st TRF Conference, he is the Organizer of a symposium on ‘Timing, Neural Dynamics, and Temporal Scaling‘. He regularly tweets about time at @deanbuono.

 

How can we determine the brain’s code for time?

I don’t think there will be a single code for time any more than there is a single code for space in the brain. I think there be will be a number of ways the brain represents and tracks time, depending on the time scale and task at hand. Timing is simply to integral to the brain’s fundamental computations to rely on a single strategy. We have increasingly compelling evidence that in some cases temporal information is encoded in dynamically changing neural activity patterns (population clocks) or ramping of firing rates. The challenge will be to understand the mechanisms by which these codes are generated, and the domain in which different coding and timing strategies are relevant (a problem related to the Taxonomy of Time, see #3 below).

 

What will your talk at the 1st Timing Research Forum Conference focus on?

A striking ability we have at the both the sensory and motor level is to recognize and generate temporal patterns at different speeds—such as the tempo of music or the speed of speech. Along with Hugo Merchant and Mehrdad Jazayeri my talk will focus on the problem of temporal scaling: the ability to produce simple or complex temporal motor patterns at different speeds.

 

What according to you are the most pressing and fundamental questions in timing research?

I think the most pressing question in the timing field may be defining what exactly we mean by the timing field. Specifically, there is an increasing recognition that we need a Taxonomy of Time. A taxonomy of memory (e.g., Procedural x Declarative) was in many ways one of the most important advances in the study of learning and memory in the 20th century. The timing field is severely hampered by our inability to define and pinpoint the different forms, and time scales, of timing and temporal processing.

 

What current topics/techniques or new advances in timing research are you most excited about?

To date most studies have primarily focused on the activity or contribution of a given brain area in a timing task. But the brain is one big “which came first the chicken or the egg” problem when it comes to cause and effect. So I’m excited about improvements in our ability to record from hundreds of neurons in multiple different brain areas simultaneously. I think focusing on the transformations that happen between areas and the differences in representations will provide a powerful tool to understand timing and temporal processing.

 

What advice do you have for students and postdoctoral researchers interesting in investigating the brain’s code for time?

Read, and try to seek out opportunities to write reviews and perspectives.