Behav Processes 2013 May 18;95:60-70. Epub 2013 Mar 18.
Department of Psychology, Utah State University, Logan, UT 84322-2810, USA.
In most species, interval timing is time-scale invariant: errors in time estimation scale up linearly with the estimated duration. In mammals, time-scale invariance is ubiquitous over behavioral, lesion, and pharmacological manipulations. For example, dopaminergic drugs induce an immediate, whereas cholinergic drugs induce a gradual, scalar change in timing. Behavioral theories posit that time-scale invariance derives from particular computations, rules, or coding schemes. In contrast, we discuss a simple neural circuit, the perceptron, whose output neurons fire in a clockwise fashion based on the pattern of coincidental activation of its input neurons. We show numerically that time-scale invariance emerges spontaneously in a perceptron with realistic neurons, in the presence of noise. Under the assumption that dopaminergic drugs modulate the firing of input neurons, and that cholinergic drugs modulate the memory representation of the criterion time, we show that a perceptron with realistic neurons reproduces the pharmacological clock and memory patterns, and their time-scale invariance, in the presence of noise. These results suggest that rather than being a signature of higher order cognitive processes or specific computations related to timing, time-scale invariance may spontaneously emerge in a massively connected brain from the intrinsic noise of neurons and circuits, thus providing the simplest explanation for the ubiquity of scale invariance of interval timing.