Lower theta inter-trial phase coherence during performance monitoring is related to higher reaction time variability: a lifespan study

Neuroimage. 2013 Dec;83:912-20. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.07.032. Epub 2013 Jul 19.


Trial-to-trial reaction time (RT) variability is consistently higher in children and older adults than in younger adults. Converging evidence also indicates that higher RT variability is (a) associated with lower behavioral performance on complex cognitive tasks, (b) distinguishes patients with neurological deficits from healthy individuals, and also (c) predicts longitudinal cognitive decline in older adults. However, so far the processes underlying increased RT variability are poorly understood. Previous evidence suggests that control signals in the medial frontal cortex (MFC) are reflected in theta band activity and may implicate the coordination of distinct brain areas during performance monitoring. We hypothesized that greater trial-to-trial variability in theta power during performance monitoring may be associated with greater behavioral variability in response latencies. We analyzed event-related theta oscillations assessed during a cued-Go/NoGo task in a lifespan sample covering the age range from middle childhood to old age. Our results show that theta inter-trial coherence during NoGo trials increases from childhood to early adulthood, and decreases from early adulthood to old age. Moreover, in all age groups, individuals with higher variability in medial frontal stimulus-locked theta oscillations showed higher trial-to-trial RT variability behaviorally. Importantly, this effect was strongest at high performance monitoring demands and independent of motor response execution as well as theta power. Taken together, our findings reveal that lower theta inter-trial coherence is related to greater behavioral variability within and across age groups. These results hint at the possibility that more variable MFC control may be associated with greater performance fluctuations.

Keywords: Aging; Inter-trial phase coherence; Maturation; Performance monitoring; Theta oscillations; Trial-to-trial reaction time variability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Child
  • Electroencephalography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Signal Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Theta Rhythm / physiology*
  • Young Adult