Thalamic mechanisms of EEG alpha rhythms and their pathological implications

Neuroscientist. 2005 Aug;11(4):357-72. doi: 10.1177/1073858405277450.


During relaxed wakefulness, the human brain exhibits pronounced rhythmic electrical activity in the alpha frequency band (8-13 Hz). This activity consists of 3 main components: the classic occipital alpha rhythm, the Rolandic mu rhythm, and the so-called third rhythm. In recent years, the long-held belief that alpha rhythms are strongly influenced by the thalamus has been confirmed in several animal models and, in humans, is well supported by numerous noninvasive imaging studies. Of specific importance is the emergence of 2 key cellular thalamic mechanisms, which come together to generate locally synchronized alpha activity. First, a novel form of rhythmic burst firing, termed high-threshold (HT) bursting, which occurs in a specialized subset of thalamocortical (TC) neurons, and second, the interconnection of this subset via gap junctions (GJs). Because repetitive HT bursting in TC neurons occurs in the range of 2 to 13 Hz, with the precise frequency increasing with increasing depolarization, the same cellular components that underlie thalamic alpha rhythms can also lead to theta (2-7 Hz) rhythms when the TC neuron population is less depolarized. As such, this scenario can explain both the deceleration of alpha rhythms that takes place during early sleep and the chronic slowing that characterizes a host of neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alpha Rhythm* / classification
  • Alpha Rhythm* / methods
  • Animals
  • Brain Mapping
  • Humans
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Sensory Thresholds / physiology
  • Thalamus / cytology
  • Thalamus / physiology*