Brain bends our processing of time to suit our needs

Uncovering vocal production control in the motor cortex.


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Life’s tempo can be challenging, sometimes faster or slower than we’d prefer. Despite this, we adapt by syncing with conversations or matching the pace of a city crowd. Cold Spring Harbor Lab’s Assistant Professor Arkarup Banerjee explores how our brains handle actions at different speeds. He and his collaborators found a clue in Alston’s singing mouse from Costa Rica, suggesting our brains adjust time processing to meet our needs.

This unique breed of mouse is famous for making sounds that humans can hear, lasting several seconds. One mouse expresses a longing cry, and another responds with its melody. The exciting part is that the songs differ in length and speed. Banerjee and his team aimed to figure out how the mice’s brain circuits control the tempo of their songs.

The researchers mimicked duets with the mice, studying a brain region called the orofacial motor cortex. Over several weeks, they recorded the activity of neurons and examined differences in songs with various lengths and speeds.

Banerjee explains that “they found that OMC neurons engage in temporal scaling. Instead of encoding absolute time like a clock, the neurons track something like relative time. “They slow down or speed up the interval. So, it’s not like one or two seconds, but 10%, 20%.”

The discovery provides a fresh understanding of how the brain creates vocal communication. Banerjee believes its significance extends beyond language or music, possibly explaining how time is processed in different brain areas, influencing various behaviors. This could shed light on the workings of our intricately complex brains.

This study represents a significant step forward in elucidating the temporal dynamics of a mouse’s brain, providing valuable insights into the neural processes underlying vocal communication and potentially extending our understanding of temporal processing in the broader context of brain function.

Journal reference:

  1. Banerjee, A., Chen, F., Druckmann, S. et al. Temporal scaling of motor cortical dynamics reveals hierarchical control of vocal production. Nature Neuroscience. DOI: 10.1038/s41593-023-01556-5.


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