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Cereb Cortex. 2002 Aug;12(8):877-82.

Oscillations in the alpha band (9-12 Hz) increase with memory load during retention in a short-term memory task.

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Brain Research Unit, Low Temperature Laboratory, Helsinki University of Technology, Otakaari 3A, 02015 HUT, Finland.


To study the role of brain oscillations in working memory, we recorded the scalp electroencephalogram (EEG) during the retention interval of a modified Sternberg task. A power spectral analysis of the EEG during the retention interval revealed a clear peak at 9-12 Hz, a frequency in the alpha band (8-13 Hz). In apparent conflict with previous ideas according to which alpha band oscillations represent brain "idling", we found that the alpha peak systematically increased with the number of items held in working memory. The enhancement was prominent over the posterior and bilateral central regions. The enhancement over posterior regions is most likely explained by the well known alpha rhythm produced close to the parietal-occipital fissure, whereas the lateral enhancement could be explained by sources in somato-motor cortex. A time-frequency analysis revealed that the enhancement was present throughout the last 2.5 s of the 2.8 s retention interval and that alpha power rapidly diminished following the probe. The load dependence and the tight temporal regulation of alpha provide strong evidence that the alpha generating system is directly or indirectly linked to the circuits responsible for working memory. Although a clear peak in the theta band (5-8 Hz) was only detectable in one subject, other lines of evidence indicate that theta occurs and also has a role in working memory. Hypotheses concerning the role of alpha band activity in working memory are discussed.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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