Probing the limits of alpha power lateralisation as a neural marker of selective attention in middle-aged and older listeners

Eur J Neurosci. 2018 Oct;48(7):2537-2550. doi: 10.1111/ejn.13862. Epub 2018 Feb 28.


In recent years, hemispheric lateralisation of alpha power has emerged as a neural mechanism thought to underpin spatial attention across sensory modalities. Yet, how healthy ageing, beginning in middle adulthood, impacts the modulation of lateralised alpha power supporting auditory attention remains poorly understood. In the current electroencephalography study, middle-aged and older adults (N = 29; ~40-70 years) performed a dichotic listening task that simulates a challenging, multitalker scenario. We examined the extent to which the modulation of 8-12 Hz alpha power would serve as neural marker of listening success across age. With respect to the increase in interindividual variability with age, we examined an extensive battery of behavioural, perceptual and neural measures. Similar to findings on younger adults, middle-aged and older listeners' auditory spatial attention induced robust lateralisation of alpha power, which synchronised with the speech rate. Notably, the observed relationship between this alpha lateralisation and task performance did not co-vary with age. Instead, task performance was strongly related to an individual's attentional and working memory capacity. Multivariate analyses revealed a separation of neural and behavioural variables independent of age. Our results suggest that in age-varying samples as the present one, the lateralisation of alpha power is neither a sufficient nor necessary neural strategy for an individual's auditory spatial attention, as higher age might come with increased use of alternative, compensatory mechanisms. Our findings emphasise that explaining interindividual variability will be key to understanding the role of alpha oscillations in auditory attention in the ageing listener.

Keywords: EEG; alpha oscillations; spatial attention; speech processing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Perceptual Masking / physiology
  • Speech / physiology*
  • Speech Perception / physiology