The topography of alpha-band activity tracks the content of spatial working memory

Article Info

Foster, J.J., Sutterer, D.W., Serences, J.T., Vogel, E.K., & Awh, E. (2016). The topography of alpha-band activity tracks the content of spatial working memoryJournal of Neurophysiology, 115(1), 168-77. doi: 10.1152/jn.00860.2015. PubMed PMID: 26467522. PMCID: PMC4760461.


Working memory (WM) is a system for the online storage of information. An emerging view is that neuronal oscillations coordinate the cellular assemblies that code the content of WM. In line with this view, previous work has demonstrated that oscillatory activity in the alpha band (8–12 Hz) plays a role in WM maintenance, but the exact contributions of this activity have remained unclear. Here, we used an inverted spatial encoding model in combination with electroencephalography (EEG) to test whether the topographic distribution of alpha-band activity tracks spatial representations held in WM. Participants in three experiments performed spatial WM tasks that required them to remember the precise angular location of a sample stimulus for 1,000-1,750 ms. Across all three experiments, we found that the topographic distribution of alpha-band activity tracked the specific location that was held in WM. Evoked (i.e., activity phase-locked to stimulus onset) and total (i.e., activity regardless of phase) power across a range of low-frequency bands transiently tracked the location of the sample stimulus following stimulus onset. However, only total power in the alpha band tracked the content of spatial WM throughout the memory delay period, which enabled reconstruction of location-selective channel tuning functions (CTFs). These findings demonstrate that alpha-band activity is directly related to the coding of spatial representations held in WM and provide a promising method for tracking the content of this online memory system.