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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Nov 10;106(45):19156-61. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0909881106. Epub 2009 Oct 22.

Neural representation of time in cortico-basal ganglia circuits.

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Department of Physics, Pennsylvania State University, 104 Davey Laboratory, PMB 206, University Park, PA 16802, USA.


Encoding time is universally required for learning and structuring motor and cognitive actions, but how the brain keeps track of time is still not understood. We searched for time representations in cortico-basal ganglia circuits by recording from thousands of neurons in the prefrontal cortex and striatum of macaque monkeys performing a routine visuomotor task. We found that a subset of neurons exhibited time-stamp encoding strikingly similar to that required by models of reinforcement-based learning: They responded with spike activity peaks that were distributed at different time delays after single task events. Moreover, the temporal evolution of the population activity allowed robust decoding of task time by perceptron models. We suggest that time information can emerge as a byproduct of event coding in cortico-basal ganglia circuits and can serve as a critical infrastructure for behavioral learning and performance.

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