Oscillations and episodic memory: addressing the synchronization/desynchronization conundrum

Simon Hanslmayr*, Bernhard P. Staresina, Howard Bowman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

135 Citations (Scopus)
266 Downloads (Pure)


Brain oscillations are one of the core mechanisms underlying episodic memory. However, while some studies highlight the role of synchronized oscillatory activity, others highlight the role of desynchronized activity. We here describe a framework to resolve this conundrum and integrate these two opposing oscillatory behaviors. Specifically, we argue that the synchronization and desynchronization reflect a division of labor between a hippocampal and a neocortical system, respectively. We describe a novel oscillatory framework that integrates synchronization and desynchronization mechanisms to explain how the two systems interact in the service of episodic memory. Data from rodent as well as human studies suggest that theta/gamma synchronization in the hippocampus (i.e., theta phase to gamma power cross-frequency coupling) mediates the binding of different elements in episodic memory.In vivo and in vitro animal studies suggest that theta provides selective time windows for fast-acting synaptic modifications and recent computational models have implemented these mechanisms to explain human memory formation and retrieval.Recent data from human experiments suggest that low-frequency power decreases in the neocortex, most evident in the alpha/beta frequency range, mediate encoding and reinstatement of episodic memories.The content of reinstated memories can be decoded from cortical low-frequency patterns.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16-25
Number of pages10
JournalTrends in Neurosciences
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jan 2016


  • Alpha/beta
  • Complementary learning systems
  • Cross-frequency coupling
  • Episodic memory
  • Gamma
  • Hippocampus
  • MTL
  • Oscillations
  • Theta

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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