Theta oscillations are sensitive to both early and late conflict processing stages: effects of alcohol intoxication

PLoS One. 2012;7(8):e43957. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0043957. Epub 2012 Aug 27.


Prior neuroimaging evidence indicates that decision conflict activates medial and lateral prefrontal and parietal cortices. Theoretical accounts of cognitive control highlight anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) as a central node in this network. However, a better understanding of the relative primacy and functional contributions of these areas to decision conflict requires insight into the neural dynamics of successive processing stages including conflict detection, response selection and execution. Moderate alcohol intoxication impairs cognitive control as it interferes with the ability to inhibit dominant, prepotent responses when they are no longer correct. To examine the effects of moderate intoxication on successive processing stages during cognitive control, spatio-temporal changes in total event-related theta power were measured during Stroop-induced conflict. Healthy social drinkers served as their own controls by participating in both alcohol (0.6 g/kg ethanol for men, 0.55 g/kg women) and placebo conditions in a counterbalanced design. Anatomically-constrained magnetoencephalography (aMEG) approach was applied to complex power spectra for theta (4-7 Hz) frequencies. The principal generator of event-related theta power to conflict was estimated to ACC, with contributions from fronto-parietal areas. The ACC was uniquely sensitive to conflict during both early conflict detection, and later response selection and execution stages. Alcohol attenuated theta power to conflict across successive processing stages, suggesting that alcohol-induced deficits in cognitive control may result from theta suppression in the executive network. Slower RTs were associated with attenuated theta power estimated to ACC, indicating that alcohol impairs motor preparation and execution subserved by the ACC. In addition to their relevance for the currently prevailing accounts of cognitive control, our results suggest that alcohol-induced impairment of top-down strategic processing underlies poor self-control and inability to refrain from drinking.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect / drug effects
  • Affect / physiology
  • Alcoholic Intoxication / physiopathology*
  • Alcoholic Intoxication / psychology*
  • Alcohols / pharmacology*
  • Conflict, Psychological*
  • Decision Making / drug effects
  • Decision Making / physiology
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / drug effects
  • Frontal Lobe / physiopathology
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Humans
  • Magnetoencephalography
  • Male
  • Mental Processes / drug effects*
  • Mental Processes / physiology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Theta Rhythm / drug effects*
  • Time Factors


  • Alcohols