Atypical or Typical Triphasic Waves-Is There a Difference? A Review

J Clin Neurophysiol. 2021 Sep 1;38(5):384-398. doi: 10.1097/WNP.0000000000000731.


The entity of triphasic waves (TWs) and TW encephalopathy has derived from the subjective art of EEG interpretation. Indeed, there are few if any guidelines regarding many different aspects of TWs. The authors seek to shed light on the nature and the diagnostic characteristics of various types of TWs, differentiating "typical" from "atypical" forms. The authors conclude that morphologies in the form of bursts of well-formed, smoothly contoured, negative-positive-negative, bilateral, symmetrical and synchronous, regular, reactive, periodic or rhythmic, 1.5 to 2.0 Hz, fronto-central, triphasic complexes with fronto-occipital lag meet the criteria for typical TWs and are highly suggestive of toxic-metabolic encephalopathies. These are most frequently hepatic, uremic, or sepsis-associated encephalopathies with multi-organ failure. In such cases, atypical TWs (frontopolar or parieto-occipital maximum, negative-positive or negative-positive-negative, asymmetric and asynchronous, unreactive, irregular, multifocal, continuous with spatiotemporal evolution, sharper and without fronto-occipital/occipito-frontal lag, or triphasic delta waves) are rarely seen. Atypical TWs are encountered in Angelman syndrome, toxic encephalopathies, hyperthyroidism/hypothyroidism, Hashimoto encephalopathy, nonconvulsive status epilepticus, dementia, sepsis-associated encephalopathy, cerebrovascular disorders, and certain boundary syndromes. Investigations describing TWs with uncommon etiologies revealed few with typical TWs, suggesting that the term "TWs" has been overused in the past. Triphasic waves arise from the interaction of multiple factors including toxic, metabolic, infectious, and structural disorders that affect circuits between thalamus and cortex. The patient's metabolic status, presence of potentially neurotoxic drugs, cerebral atrophy, white matter disease, dementia, or seizures help differentiate typical from typical TWs. Future studies will determine whether this dichotomy is heuristically and clinically helpful.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain Diseases* / diagnosis
  • Cerebral Cortex
  • Electroencephalography
  • Humans
  • Seizures
  • Status Epilepticus*