ERC Starting Grant for Torben Ott/ERC Starting Grant für Torben Ott

How valuable is my time?

Torben Ott has been awarded an ERC Starting Grant and wants to use it to investigate the mechanisms that give value to our available time. The focus is on the neurotransmitter serotonin, which Ott suspects is the key element in time valuation. With the project, Ott wants to provide systematic access to our perception of time.

In the novel “Der Zauberberg” (1942) Thomas Mann tells how a short visit grows into a seven-year stay. Fascinated by the temporality thematized in the novel, Torben Ott, head of the research group “Decision Circuits Lab” at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin (BCCN Berlin)/Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, begins to scientifically question how humans and animals value time. During his postdoctoral phase in the USA, he investigated how patient animals are in different situations and managed to predict such behaviors with the help of mathematical models. In January 2022, Ott began setting up his own research group in Berlin, funded by the Emmy Noether Programm of the German Research Foundation (DFG). Now he is receiving an ERC Starting Grant. With the help of the grant, Ott, together with his research group, would like to investigate the concept of time valuation even further and writes: “This research project aims to identify the neuronal mechanisms that give value to our time and thus shape our behavior.” In particular, the role of serotonin will be investigated for this purpose. The neurotransmitter, which is known for its influence on our mood, is suspected by Ott to be a key element in time valuation. First, animal experiments will be used to objectively measure the value of time. For this purpose, rats will be observed how much time they invest in activities with varying rewards in each case. Subsequently, mathematical models will quantify the time value of the rats. Using highly efficient probes, the next step will be to identify the neuronal networks in the orbitofrontal cortex that could be responsible for this time valuation. At the same time, the release of serotonin will be measured in real time to better understand its influence on the cortical networks.

With this project, Ott hopes to provide nothing less than fundamental insights into how our brains control our use of the time we have. “I hope that this concept will provide a new, systematic approach to our perception of time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that mood and the perception of time are so closely related,” Ott writes.

(Original press release by Alexander Lammers)

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