The functional significance of delta oscillations in cognitive processing

Front Integr Neurosci. 2013 Dec 5;7:83. doi: 10.3389/fnint.2013.00083.


Ample evidence suggests that electroencephalographic (EEG) oscillatory activity is linked to a broad variety of perceptual, sensorimotor, and cognitive operations. However, few studies have investigated the delta band (0.5-3.5 Hz) during different cognitive processes. The aim of this review is to present data and propose the hypothesis that sustained delta oscillations inhibit interferences that may affect the performance of mental tasks, possibly by modulating the activity of those networks that should be inactive to accomplish the task. It is clear that two functionally distinct and potentially competing brain networks can be broadly distinguished by their contrasting roles in attention to the external world vs. the internally directed mentation or concentration. During concentration, EEG delta (1-3.5 Hz) activity increases mainly in frontal leads in different tasks: mental calculation, semantic tasks, and the Sternberg paradigm. This last task is considered a working memory task, but in neural, as well as phenomenological, terms, working memory can be best understood as attention focused on an internal representation. In the Sternberg task, increases in power in the frequencies from 1 to 3.90 Hz in frontal regions are reported. In a Go/No-Go task, power increases at 1 Hz in both conditions were observed during 100-300 ms in central, parietal and temporal regions. However, in the No-Go condition, power increases were also observed in frontal regions, suggesting its participation in the inhibition of the motor response. Increases in delta power were also reported during semantic tasks in children. In conclusion, the results suggest that power increases of delta frequencies during mental tasks are associated with functional cortical deafferentation, or inhibition of the sensory afferences that interfere with internal concentration. These inhibitory oscillations would modulate the activity of those networks that should be inactive to accomplish the task.

Keywords: EEG delta; attention; cognition; frontal lobes; inhibition; working memory.

Publication types

  • Review