Let’s Dissociate Neural Network for Time perception and Working Memory

At fundamental level time perception involves, storing the temporal information of the present event and comparing it with the past temporal memories of similar or other events. It is impossible to imagine the process of time perception in the absence of working memory, and hence it has always been difficult to dissociate and study them in a single paradigm.

A recent study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience by Sertaç Üstün, Emre Kale and Metehan Çiçek, designed a novel paradigm to understand and dissociate the neural networks involved in time perception and working memory. Although all time perception tasks involves working memory, the main objective of this study was to understand and compare the brain activity when participants are performing only timing task, only numerical working memory task, or both.

In this study, participants (N=15) performed four types of experimental tasks (control task, only timing task, only working memory task, and both) while their brain activities were scanned using fMRI. Before each trial participants were cued about which task they were supposed to focus and report.

In control task, participants saw a box, horizontally moving from left side of the screen towards right. The middle path of this moving box was occluded using a black wide vertical bar. This black bar could be imagined as a tunnel and the box as a car, so initially you see the car (box) moving from left to right, in the middle of the screen it goes through a tunnel (black bar) so you cannot see it, and after some time it reappears from the other side of the tunnel (black bar). Participants pressed a key, when the box reappeared from other side of the vertical black bar. In only timing task, the authors very smartly changed the speed of the moving box when it was occluded, so sometimes the box reappeared on the other side after a short time (when speed was increased) or after a long time (when speed was decreased). Participants reported whether the speed increased or decreased. In only working memory task, they used a numerical task, so this box could contain either 1, 2, 3 or 4 dots in it. The number of these dots could increase or decrease when it was occluded. Participants reported whether the number of dots increased or decreased. Lastly, in the dual task condition, they asked participants to focus and report both the number of the dots and the speed of the box.

Behaviourally, they only recorded the reaction time (RTs) and accuracy for the four experimental tasks. In general, they found that participants were more accurate and faster in control task compared to any other demanding tasks. Comparing the accuracy of only timing task with only numerical working memory task suggests that timing task was relatively difficult compared to numerical working memory task.

In terms of brain activation, they observed enhanced activity in right dorsolateral prefrontal and right intraparietal cortical networks, together with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), anterior insula and basal ganglia (BG) when timing task was contrasted with control. While a right hemisphere domination was observed in timing task, they observed a left hemisphere domination when numerical working memory task was contrasted with control, specifically, enhanced activation in left prefrontal cortex, ACC, left superior parietal cortex, BG and cerebellum were observed. Both time perception and working memory were related to a strong peristriate cortical activity. One more interesting observation, was that while timing deactivated intraparietal sulcus (IPS) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), conversely the control, numerical memory, and dual (time-memory) tasks activated these brain regions.

They conclude that their results support a distributed neural network based model for time perception and that the intraparietal and posterior cingulate areas might play a role in the interface of memory and timing.

Although this study provides a good paradigm to study timing and memory related questions, there are some points, which should be noted. First, they do not use any explicit psychophysical timing task, which would have further provided more insights into the neural networks involved in maintaining a temporal working memory vs. maintaining a non-temporal working memory. Second, they only use one direction of moving box i.e. left-to-right, they could have controlled this by including the right-to-left direction, as well. This would reflect more about the hemisphere lateralization observed for timing and numerical working memory task. In addition, even top-to-bottom vs. bottom-to-top could be conducted, with horizontal black bar as occluder.

Overall, this is a very interesting study, and cleverly designed to investigate brain networks involved in timing and working memory, and encourage the timing community to do more research addressing these questions, and focus on the role of intraparietal and posterior cingulate areas in these two processes.

Source article: Üstün, S., Kale, E. H., & Çiçek, M. (2017). Neural Networks for Time Perception and Working Memory. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11 (83).

—-Mukesh Makwana (mukesh@cbcs.ac.in)
Doctoral student,
Centre of Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences (CBCS), India.