Understanding the computation of time using neural network models

Zedong Bi, Changsong Zhou*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

35 Citations (Scopus)


To maximize future rewards in this ever-changing world, animals must be able to discover the temporal structure of stimuli and then anticipate or act correctly at the right time. How do animals perceive, maintain, and use time intervals ranging from hundreds of milliseconds to multiseconds in working memory? How is temporal information processed concurrently with spatial information and decision making? Why are there strong neuronal temporal signals in tasks in which temporal information is not required? A systematic understanding of the underlying neural mechanisms is still lacking. Here, we addressed these problems using supervised training of recurrent neural network models. We revealed that neural networks perceive elapsed time through state evolution along stereotypical trajectory, maintain time intervals in working memory in the monotonic increase or decrease of the firing rates of interval-tuned neurons, and compare or produce time intervals by scaling state evolution speed. Temporal and nontemporal information is coded in subspaces orthogonal with each other, and the state trajectories with time at different nontemporal information are quasiparallel and isomorphic. Such coding geometry facilitates the decoding generalizability of temporal and nontemporal information across each other. The network structure exhibits multiple feedforward sequences that mutually excite or inhibit depending on whether their preferences of nontemporal information are similar or not. We identified four factors that facilitate strong temporal signals in nontiming tasks, including the anticipation of coming events. Our work discloses fundamental computational principles of temporal processing, and it is supported by and gives predictions to a number of experimental phenomena.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10530-10540
Number of pages11
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number19
Publication statusPublished - 12 May 2020

Scopus Subject Areas

  • General

User-Defined Keywords

  • Interval timing
  • Neural network model
  • Population coding


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