EEG alpha oscillations: the inhibition-timing hypothesis

Brain Res Rev. 2007 Jan;53(1):63-88. doi: 10.1016/j.brainresrev.2006.06.003. Epub 2006 Aug 1.


The traditional belief is that the event-related alpha response can solely be described in terms of suppression or event-related desynchronization (ERD). Recent research, however, has shown that under certain conditions alpha responds reliably with an increase in amplitudes (event-related synchronization or ERS). ERS is elicited in situations, where subjects withhold or control the execution of a response and is obtained over sites that probably are under, or exert top-down control. Thus, we assume that alpha ERS reflects top-down, inhibitory control processes. This assumption leads over to the timing aspect of our hypothesis. By the very nature of an oscillation, rhythmic amplitude changes reflect rhythmic changes in excitation of a population of neurons. Thus, the time and direction of a change - described by phase - is functionally related to the timing of neuronal activation processes. A variety of findings supports this view and shows, e.g., that alpha phase coherence increases between task-relevant sites and that phase lag lies within a time range that is consistent with neuronal transmission speed. Another implication is that phase reset will be a powerful mechanism for the event-related timing of cortical processes. Empirical evidence suggests that the extent of phase locking is a functionally sensitive measure that is related to cognitive performance. Our general conclusion is that alpha ERS plays an active role for the inhibitory control and timing of cortical processing whereas ERD reflects the gradual release of inhibition associated with the emergence of complex spreading activation processes.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Clocks / physiology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Electroencephalography*
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neural Inhibition / physiology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Time Factors