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Undersea Biomed Res. 1992 Jul;19(4):243-62.

Effect of mental task load on fronto-central theta activity in a deep saturation dive to 450 msw.

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DLR-Institute for Aerospace Medicine, Underwater Medicine Department, Cologne.


The increase of theta activity (4-7 Hz) in the electroencephalogram (EEG) during deep diving is commonly attributed to pathophysiologic mechanisms underlying the high pressure neurologic syndrome. The aim of this study was to clarify whether more precise cognitive aspects of the condition may be described in which theta activity occurs during a deep dive. Among 4 divers who were repeatedly examined during the GUSI 14 dive to 450 msw, 3 divers exhibited a pronounced correlation between short-term memory load, as varied by the memory set size of Sternberg's memory search task (MST), and the size of a distinct peak in the theta band of the EEG-power spectrum. The power of this peak was greatest in the fronto-central electrode position (Fz), increased dramatically during MST-performance at pressure, and failed to subside fully 1 day before surfacing. Despite the close dependency of observed theta activity on cognitive demands, no consistent correlation with performance measures (mean reaction time and errors) was found. In one diver, theta waves of similar morphology appeared in the resting EEG and increased significantly during the dive. We suggest two alternative explanations for the positive interaction of memory load and hyperbaric exposure on Fz-theta: a) Both factors induce a state of increased mental effort or selectivity of attention, known to be accompanied by frontal theta activity from normobaric studies. b) Pressure abnormally facilitates or patterns rhythmical excitations underlying theta activity that would occur naturally to a lesser extent during certain mental activities, learning, or repetitive short-term memory operations.

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