Theta and Alpha Oscillations Are Traveling Waves in the Human Neocortex

Neuron. 2018 Jun 27;98(6):1269-1281.e4. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2018.05.019. Epub 2018 Jun 7.


Human cognition requires the coordination of neural activity across widespread brain networks. Here, we describe a new mechanism for large-scale coordination in the human brain: traveling waves of theta and alpha oscillations. Examining direct brain recordings from neurosurgical patients performing a memory task, we found contiguous clusters of cortex in individual patients with oscillations at specific frequencies within 2 to 15 Hz. These oscillatory clusters displayed spatial phase gradients, indicating that they formed traveling waves that propagated at ∼0.25-0.75 m/s. Traveling waves were relevant behaviorally because their propagation correlated with task events and was more consistent when subjects performed the task well. Human traveling theta and alpha waves can be modeled by a network of coupled oscillators because the direction of wave propagation correlated with the spatial orientation of local frequency gradients. Our findings suggest that oscillations support brain connectivity by organizing neural processes across space and time.

Keywords: alpha; electrocorticography; electroencephalography; memory; oscillation; theta; traveling wave.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Video-Audio Media

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Alpha Rhythm / physiology*
  • Child
  • Electrocorticography
  • Electroencephalography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Neocortex / physiology*
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Theta Rhythm / physiology*
  • Young Adult