Although a large number of studies have been devoted to establishing correlations between changes in amplitude and frequency of EEG alpha oscillations and cognitive processes, it is currently unclear through which physiological mechanisms such changes are brought about. In this study we use a biophysical model of EEG generation to gain a fundamental understanding of the functional changes within the thalamo-cortical system that might underly such alpha responses. The main result of this study is that, although the physiology of the thalamo-cortical system is characterized by a large number of parameters, alpha responses effectively depend on only three variables. Physiologically, these variables determine the resonance properties of feedforward, cortico-thalamo-cortical, and intra-cortical circuits. By examining the effect of modulations of these resonances on the amplitude and frequency of EEG alpha oscillations, it is established that the model can reproduce the variety of experimentally observed alpha responses, as well as the experimental finding that changes in alpha amplitude are typically an order of magnitude larger than changes in alpha frequency. The modeling results are also in line with the fact that alpha responses often correlate linearly with indices characterizing cognitive processes. By investigating the effect of synaptic and intrinsic neuronal parameters, we find that alpha responses reflect changes in cortical activation, which is consistent with the hypothesis that alpha activity serves to selectively inhibit cortical regions during cognitive processing demands. As an example of how these analyses can be applied to specific experimental protocols, we reproduce benzodiazepine-induced alpha responses and clarify the putative underlying thalamo-cortical mechanisms. The findings reported in this study provide a fundamental physiological framework within which alpha responses observed in specific experimental protocols can be understood.
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