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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Why noise is useful in functional and neural mechanisms of interval timing?

Sorinel A Oprisan1* and Catalin V Buhusi2

Author affiliations

1 Department of Physics and Astronomy, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC, USA

2 Department of Psychology, Utah State University, Logan, UT, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Neuroscience 2013, 14:84  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-14-84

Published: 7 August 2013



The ability to estimate durations in the seconds-to-minutes range - interval timing - is essential for survival, adaptation and its impairment leads to severe cognitive and/or motor dysfunctions. The response rate near a memorized duration has a Gaussian shape centered on the to-be-timed interval (criterion time). The width of the Gaussian-like distribution of responses increases linearly with the criterion time, i.e., interval timing obeys the scalar property.


We presented analytical and numerical results based on the striatal beat frequency (SBF) model showing that parameter variability (noise) mimics behavioral data. A key functional block of the SBF model is the set of oscillators that provide the time base for the entire timing network. The implementation of the oscillators block as simplified phase (cosine) oscillators has the additional advantage that is analytically tractable. We also checked numerically that the scalar property emerges in the presence of memory variability by using biophysically realistic Morris-Lecar oscillators. First, we predicted analytically and tested numerically that in a noise-free SBF model the output function could be approximated by a Gaussian. However, in a noise-free SBF model the width of the Gaussian envelope is independent of the criterion time, which violates the scalar property. We showed analytically and verified numerically that small fluctuations of the memorized criterion time leads to scalar property of interval timing.


Noise is ubiquitous in the form of small fluctuations of intrinsic frequencies of the neural oscillators, the errors in recording/retrieving stored information related to criterion time, fluctuation in neurotransmitters’ concentration, etc. Our model suggests that the biological noise plays an essential functional role in the SBF interval timing.