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Converging electrophysiological evidence suggests that the alpha rhythm plays an important and active role in cognitive processing. Here, we systematically studied variability in posterior alpha peak frequency both between and within subjects. We recorded brain activity using MEG in 51 healthy human subjects under three experimental conditions - rest, passive visual stimulation and an N-back working memory paradigm, using source reconstruction methods to separate alpha activity from parietal and occipital sources. We asked how alpha peak frequency differed within subjects across cognitive conditions and regions of interest, and looked at the distribution of alpha peak frequency between subjects. In both regions we observed an increase of alpha peak frequency from resting state and passive visual stimulation conditions to the N-back paradigm, with a significantly higher alpha peak frequency in the 2-back compared to the 0-back condition. There was a trend for a greater increase in alpha peak frequency during the N-back task in the occipital vs. parietal cortex. The average alpha peak frequency across all subjects, conditions, and regions of interest was 10.3 Hz with a within-subject SD of 0.9 Hz and a between-subject SD of 2.8 Hz. We also measured beta peak frequencies, and except in the parietal cortex during rest, found no indication of a strictly harmonic relationship with alpha peak frequencies. We conclude that alpha peak frequency in posterior regions increases with increasing cognitive demands, and that the alpha rhythm operates across a wider frequency range than the 8-12 Hz band many studies tend to include in their analysis. Thus, using a fixed and limited alpha frequency band might bias results against certain subjects and conditions.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





46 - 55


Alpha, Beta, MEG, Oscillations, Adult, Alpha Rhythm, Brain Mapping, Brain Waves, Cognitive Reserve, Executive Function, Female, Humans, Magnetoencephalography, Male, Oscillometry, Reproducibility of Results, Sensitivity and Specificity, Young Adult