Profs do study on reflexes, timing

We’ve all experienced it. We drive through a stop light when it is yellow, and we tap our fingers to the beat of a song. Some of us don’t set an alarm to get up in the morning. Our bodies have a sense of timing, or internal clock, and this clock is now being studied at the University.

Kevin Pang and Devin McAuley, two professors in the psychology department, have been awarded a $1 million grant from the National Institute of Health to do research on timing and how age can affect perception of time.

“It’s already been known that aging does influence timing; it’s just a matter of finding out where and what kind of changes in the brain are occurring with age,” Pang said.

The two psychologists have begun their research and are working with both humans and animals to try to determine normal time perception and what within the brain changes with age.

“A unique part of the grant is that we are conducting studies between human beings and animals,” McAuley said. “Animals can be trained to learn specific time intervals so we matched the tasks of the animals and the humans.”

The researchers will also perform surgeries and administer drugs that can temporarily or permanently destroy areas of the rats’ brains, Pang said. This procedure will help the researchers find what parts of the brain truly affect timing in humans.

“There is a lot of literature suggesting that some areas are more damaging than other areas,” Pang said. “We will try to isolate that experimentally to reproduce what is happening in the brain.”

McAuley has begun doing research for the human side of the study, and currently is focusing on college-aged adults. The experiments are fairly simple, McAuley said, but they answer questions about the formation of memory for time. The experiments begin with a low sound and a high sound, McAuley said. After awhile, the high sound is taken away, but the subject is asked to indicate when they think the sound should have come in.

The experiments with the rats are very similar to the experiments with the humans, Pang said. The rats, however, have to be trained. They are trained to push a bar when they see a light, and if they do it in a certain time, they are rewarded.

“The link between the humans and the animals is that aging animals and humans show the same behavior patterns,” Pang said. “After the research, we can suggest that what we are doing in the animals brains may be similar to what is happening in the humans.”

The researchers plan to begin testing older humans this summer, and then hope to prove part of their hypothesis. “One interesting difference we anticipate is that there may be some sort of distortions in perception of time,” McAuley said. “Older adults may overestimate time intervals in relation to young adults.”

However, McAuley said it is more than just determining perceptual accuracy. “In knowing that they are less accurate, we can then go back to some of the theoretical models and specify the part of the model is impaired in aged animals or aged humans compared to young humans,” Pang said.

After the research is collected the data could shed light on what would be considered normal and abnormal timing, McAuley said. This could help in understanding what happens to people’s brains when they have strokes or are in car accidents. The information could also reveal information about diseases like Parkinson’s.

The grant is for five years, but the researchers hope their research will not be limited to that time span. They hope to continue their work on the brain and its perception of time to better understand how it works.

“If you understand normal age-related times, you certainly would be able to understand the more general effects of aging,” McAuley said, “and thus be able to consider people’s capabilities.”