The Role of Alpha Power in the Suppression of Anticipated Distractors During Verbal Working Memory

Brain Topogr. 2021 Jan;34(1):102-109. doi: 10.1007/s10548-020-00810-4. Epub 2020 Nov 20.


As working memory (WM) is limited in capacity, it is important to direct neural resources towards processing task-relevant information while ignoring distractors. Neural oscillations in the alpha frequency band (8-12 Hz) have been suggested to play a role in the inhibition of task-irrelevant information during WM, although results are mixed, possibly due to differences in the type of WM task employed. Here, we examined the role of alpha power in suppression of anticipated distractors of varying strength using a modified Sternberg task where the encoding and retention periods were temporally separated. We recorded EEG while 20 young adults completed the task and found: (1) slower reaction times in strong distractor trials compared to weak distractor trials; (2) increased alpha power in posterior regions from baseline prior to presentation of a distractor regardless of condition; and (3) no differences in alpha power between strong and weak distractor conditions. Our results suggest that parieto-occipital alpha power is increased prior to a distractor. However, we could not find evidence that alpha power is further modulated by distractor strength.

Keywords: Alpha oscillations; Distractor suppression; EEG; Working memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alpha Rhythm*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Memory, Short-Term*
  • Reaction Time
  • Young Adult