Phase-amplitude coupling between theta and multiple gamma sub-bands is a hallmark of hippocampal activity and believed to take part in information routing. More recently, theta and gamma oscillations were also reported to exhibit phase-phase coupling, or n:m phase-locking, suggesting an important mechanism of neuronal coding that has long received theoretical support. However, by analyzing simulated and actual LFPs, here we question the existence of theta-gamma phase-phase coupling in the rat hippocampus. We show that the quasi-linear phase shifts introduced by filtering lead to spurious coupling levels in both white noise and hippocampal LFPs, which highly depend on epoch length, and that significant coupling may be falsely detected when employing improper surrogate methods. We also show that waveform asymmetry and frequency harmonics may generate artifactual n:m phase-locking. Studies investigating phase-phase coupling should rely on appropriate statistical controls and be aware of confounding factors; otherwise, they could easily fall into analysis pitfalls.
Keywords: brain rhythms; cross-frequency coupling; electrophysiology; local field potential; neuronal oscillations; neuroscience; rat.