Yes, your cat knows his feeding schedule, and your dog knows when she normally walks – or at least our pets have some idea of how time works, says a new study from Northwestern University.
According to a statement from the school, a new study discovered a series of neurons in the medial entorhinal cortex of the brain of a mouse, "which turn on like a clock when an animal waits."
"Does your dog know that it took you twice as long to get your meal as yesterday, but there was no good answer to that," said Daniel Dombeck, associate professor of neurobiology at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences Northwestern University, which led the study. "This is one of the most compelling experiments to show that animals actually have an explicit representation of time in their brains when they are challenged to measure a time interval."
In This Groundbreaking Study ̵
To test this theory, researchers created a virtual test for their mice, the so-called "doorstop" on a physical treadmill, through a virtual environment consisting of a corridor leading to a door. By running around, the mouse learned that if he followed the hallway halfway to a door, the door would open after six seconds, and then he would receive a reward.
Once the mouse learned where the door was, the door was replaced by an invisible door. Even though the mice in the study could not see the door, they still knew they had to stop at the invisible door and wait six seconds before walking through the invisible door to receive their reward.
"The important point here is that the mouse does not know when the door is open or closed because it is invisible," said James Heys, one of the authors of the study, in a statement. "The only way he can efficiently accomplish this task is to use the inner sense of time of his brain."
The previously unknown group of neurons responsible for this understanding of time was discovered by imaging the brains of the participating mice
"As the animals travel down the track and reach the invisible door, we see the cells trigger the spatial control of the control, "said Dombeck. "Then when the animal is at the door, we can see that these cells are off and a new set of cells is turned on, which was a big surprise and a new discovery."
This discovery of "timing cells" means your cat will probably be aware if you're 10 minutes late with your breakfast, but it could also be a breakthrough for people. Because the entorhinal cortex is often one of the first parts of the brain affected by the onset of Alzheimer's disease, the same "doorstep" function could be replicated for humans to aid in the early detection of Alzheimer's.