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The Neurochemistry of Time Influences the Workings of Mind

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 11, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The American physicist John Archibald Wheeler observed that time is what prevents everything from happening at once. Researchers are now beginning to suspect that impaired time perception is important in a wide range of psychological ills.

A June 10 New Scientist story by Andy Coghlan reports that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have a hard time with time. He cites a study by Katya Rubia at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London who suspected time perception might influence the short attention spans and impulsive behavior of children with ADHD. Researchers used MRI scans on 12 boys who had ADHD, and discovered below normal activity in the frontal lobe, basal ganglia, and cerebellum, brain areas thought to be critical for time perception. Those boys were also less adept at estimating time than 12 boys without ADHD. Interestingly, their time estimates improved after getting Ritalin, which boosts dopamine levels in the brain and is a drug commonly used to treat ADHD. The research is published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

For a child with ADHD, a few minutes of sitting still can seem like endless torment. Unusual and risky behavior stimulates dopamine, scientists say, and Rubia thinks that when kids with ADHD engage in hyper and disruptive behavior, they may actually be self medicating.

Some scientists have divided our time-keeping abilities into three domains, according to a story by Robert Roy Britt, "The Human Brain Seen as a Master of Time.” The circadian clock keeps us in sync with a 24 hour night and day cycle. Another clock operating on a millisecond level controls movement and speech and other vital functions we don’t consciously think about. Neuroscientists think a lesser known middle mode "interval timing” clock helps us manage functions that require seconds, minutes and longer periods of concentration.

Duke University neuroscientists Warren Meck and Catalin Buhusi, who is now with the Medical University of South Carolina, found that interval timing ability seems to be faulty in non-medicated Parkinson’s patients. They note that people who have Huntington’s disease, depression or mania also have been found to have impaired time perception. In addition, researchers have found faulty time perception in persons with schizophrenia. Researchers think drugs to influence the neurochemistry of time have potential to treat many disorders.

But our own thoughts, too, influence our understanding of time. Just think of the old sayings: time flies when you’re having fun and a watched pot never boils. And stress is a factor: One study showed smokers and non smokers were equally accurate in estimating time in an experimental setting. But when the smokers went cold turkey for 24 hours, their estimates deteriorated.

Time is the school in which we learn,

Time is the fire in which we burn.

Delmore Schwartz, "Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day"

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  neuroscience  time 

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