Increases in alpha oscillatory power reflect an active retinotopic mechanism for distracter suppression during sustained visuospatial attention
Author: Simon P. Kelly and Edmund C. Lalor and Richard B. Reilly and John J. Foxe
Human electrophysiological (EEG) studies have demonstrated the involvement of alpha band (8- to 14-Hz) oscillations in the anticipatory biasing of attention. In the context of visual spatial attention within bilateral stimulus arrays, alpha has exhibited greater amplitude over parietooccipital cortex contralateral to the hemifield required to be ignored, relative to that measured when the same hemifield is to be attended. Whether this differential effect arises solely from alpha desynchronization (decreases) over the “attending” hemisphere, from synchronization (increases) over the “ignoring” hemisphere, or both, has not been fully resolved. This is because of the confounding effect of externally evoked desynchronization that occurs involuntarily in response to visual cues. Here, bilateral flickering stimuli were presented simultaneously and continuously over entire trial blocks, such that externally evoked alpha desynchronization is equated in precue baseline and postcue intervals. Equivalent random letter sequences were superimposed on the left and right flicker stimuli. Subjects were required to count the presentations of the target letter “X” at the cued hemifield over an 8-s period and ignore the sequence in the opposite hemifield. The data showed significant increases in alpha power over the ignoring hemisphere relative to the precue baseline, observable for both cue directions. A strong attentional bias necessitated by the subjective difficulty in gating the distracting letter sequence is reflected in a large effect size of 2.1 (η2 = 0.82), measured from the attention × hemisphere interaction. This strongly suggests that alpha synchronization reflects an active attentional suppression mechanism, rather than a passive one reflecting “idling” circuits.