Two spatially distinct posterior alpha sources fulfill different functional roles in attention

Rodika Sokoliuk, Stephen Mayhew, Kevin Aquino, Ross Wilson, Matthew J. Brookes, Susan Francis, Simon Hanslmayr, Karen Mullinger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)
150 Downloads (Pure)


Directing attention helps to extract relevant information and suppress distracters. Alpha brain oscillations (8-12 Hz) are crucial for this process, with power decreases facilitating processing of important information and power increases inhibiting brain regions processing irrelevant information. Evidence for this phenomenon arises from visual attention studies (Worden et al., 2000); however, the effect also exists in other modalities, including the somatosensory system (Haegens et al., 2011) and intersensory attention tasks (Foxe and Snyder, 2011). We investigated in human participants (10 females, 10 males) the role of alpha oscillations in focused (0/100%) versus divided (40/60%) attention, both across modalities (visual/somatosensory; Experiment 1) and within the same modality (visual domain: across hemifields; Experiment 2) while recording EEG over 128 scalp electrodes. In Experiment 1, participants divided their attention between visual and somatosensory modality to determine the temporal/spatial frequency of a target stimulus (vibrotactile stimulus/Gabor grating). In Experiment 2, participants divided attention between two visual hemifields to identify the orientation of a Gabor grating. In both experiments, prestimulus alpha power in visual areas decreased linearly with increasing attention to visual stimuli. In contrast, prestimulus alpha power in parietal areas was lower when attention was divided between modalities/hemifields compared with focused attention. These results suggest there are two alpha sources, one of which reflects the "visual spotlight of attention" and the other reflects attentional effort. To our knowledge, this is the first study to show that attention recruits two spatially distinct alpha sources in occipital and parietal brain regions, acting simultaneously but serving different functions in attention.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: Attention to one spatial location/sensory modality leads to power changes of alpha oscillations (∼10 Hz) with decreased power over regions processing relevant information and power increases to actively inhibit areas processing "to-be-ignored" information. Here, we used detailed source modeling to investigate EEG data recorded during separate unimodal (visual) and multimodal (visual and somatosensory) attention tasks. Participants either focused their attention on one modality/spatial location or directed it to both. We show for the first time two distinct alpha sources are active simultaneously but play different roles. A sensory (visual) alpha source was linearly modulated by attention representing the "visual spotlight of attention." By contrast, a parietal alpha source was modulated by attentional effort, showing lowest alpha power when attention was divided.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7183-7194
Number of pages12
JournalThe Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number36
Publication statusPublished - 4 Sept 2019

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2019 the authors.


  • alpha oscillations
  • attention
  • brain oscillations
  • EEG
  • multimodal attention
  • source estimates

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'Two spatially distinct posterior alpha sources fulfill different functional roles in attention'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this