Short-term interval timing i.e., perception and action relating to durations in the seconds range, has been suggested to display time-of-day as well as wake dependent fluctuations due to circadian and sleep-homeostatic changes to the rate at which an underlying pacemaker emits pulses; pertinent human data being relatively sparse and lacking in consistency however, the phenomenon remains elusive and its mechanism poorly understood. To better characterize the putative circadian and sleep-homeostatic effects on interval timing and to assess the ability of a pacemaker-based mechanism to account for the data, we measured timing performance in eighteen young healthy male subjects across two epochs of sustained wakefulness of 38.67 h each, conducted prior to (under entrained conditions) and following (under free-running conditions) a 28 h sleep-wake schedule, using the methods of duration estimation and duration production on target intervals of 10 and 40 s. Our findings of opposing oscillatory time courses across both epochs of sustained wakefulness that combine with increasing and, respectively, decreasing, saturating exponential change for the tasks of estimation and production are consistent with the hypothesis that a pacemaker emitting pulses at a rate controlled by the circadian oscillator and increasing with time awake determines human shortterm interval timing; the duration-specificity of this pattern is interpreted as reflecting challenges to maintaining stable attention to the task that progressively increase with stimulus magnitude and thereby moderate the effects of pacemaker-rate changes on overt behavior.
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