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Front Comput Neurosci. 2018 Apr 4;12:23. doi: 10.3389/fncom.2018.00023. eCollection 2018.

On the Physiological Modulation and Potential Mechanisms Underlying Parieto-Occipital Alpha Oscillations.

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Institut d'Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer, Barcelona, Spain.


The parieto-occipital alpha (8-13 Hz) rhythm is by far the strongest spectral fingerprint in the human brain. Almost 90 years later, its physiological origin is still far from clear. In this Research Topic I review human pharmacological studies using electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) that investigated the physiological mechanisms behind posterior alpha. Based on results from classical and recent experimental studies, I find a wide spectrum of drugs that modulate parieto-occipital alpha power. Alpha frequency is rarely affected, but this might be due to the range of drug dosages employed. Animal and human pharmacological findings suggest that both GABA enhancers and NMDA blockers systematically decrease posterior alpha power. Surprisingly, most of the theoretical frameworks do not seem to embrace these empirical findings and the debate on the functional role of alpha oscillations has been polarized between the inhibition vs. active poles hypotheses. Here, I speculate that the functional role of alpha might depend on physiological excitation as much as on physiological inhibition. This is supported by animal and human pharmacological work showing that GABAergic, glutamatergic, cholinergic, and serotonergic receptors in the thalamus and the cortex play a key role in the regulation of alpha power and frequency. This myriad of physiological modulations fit with the view that the alpha rhythm is a complex rhythm with multiple sources supported by both thalamo-cortical and cortico-cortical loops. Finally, I briefly discuss how future research combining experimental measurements derived from theoretical predictions based of biophysically realistic computational models will be crucial to the reconciliation of these disparate findings.


brain oscillations; cognitive processes; electroencephalography; magnetoencephalography; pharmacology

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