Top-down controlled alpha band activity in somatosensory areas determines behavioral performance in a discrimination task

J Neurosci. 2011 Apr 6;31(14):5197-204. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5199-10.2011.


The brain receives a rich flow of information which must be processed according to behavioral relevance. How is the state of the sensory system adjusted to up- or downregulate processing according to anticipation? We used magnetoencephalography to investigate whether prestimulus alpha band activity (8-14 Hz) reflects allocation of attentional resources in the human somatosensory system. Subjects performed a tactile discrimination task where a visual cue directed attention to their right or left hand. The strength of attentional modulation was controlled by varying the reliability of the cue in three experimental blocks (100%, 75%, or 50% valid cueing). While somatosensory prestimulus alpha power lateralized strongly with a fully predictive cue (100%), lateralization was decreased with lower cue reliability (75%) and virtually absent if the cue had no predictive value at all (50%). Importantly, alpha lateralization influenced the subjects' behavioral performance positively: both accuracy and speed of response improved with the degree of alpha lateralization. This study demonstrates that prestimulus alpha lateralization in the somatosensory system behaves similarly to posterior alpha activity observed in visual attention tasks. Our findings extend the notion that alpha band activity is involved in shaping the functional architecture of the working brain by determining both the engagement and disengagement of specific regions: the degree of anticipation modulates the alpha activity in sensory regions in a graded manner. Thus, the alpha activity is under top-down control and seems to play an important role for setting the state of sensory regions to optimize processing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alpha Rhythm / physiology*
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cues
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology*
  • Electric Stimulation / methods
  • Electroencephalography
  • Female
  • Fourier Analysis
  • Functional Laterality
  • Humans
  • Magnetoencephalography / methods
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology*
  • Young Adult