Spectral fingerprints or spectral tilt? Evidence for distinct oscillatory signatures of memory formation

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Decreases in low frequency power (2-30 Hz) alongside high frequency power increases (>40 Hz) have been demonstrated to predict successful memory formation. Parsimoniously this change in the frequency spectrum can be explained by one factor, a change in the tilt of the power spectrum (from steep to flat) indicating engaged brain regions. A competing view is that the change in the power spectrum contains several distinct brain oscillatory fingerprints, each serving different computations. Here, we contrast these two theories in a parallel MEG-intracranial EEG study where healthy participants and epilepsy patients, respectively, studied either familiar verbal material, or unfamiliar faces. We investigated whether modulations in specific frequency bands can be dissociated in time, space and by experimental manipulation. Both, MEG and iEEG data, show that decreases in alpha/beta power specifically predicted the encoding of words, but not faces, whereas increases in gamma power and decreases in theta power predicted memory formation irrespective of material. Critically, these different oscillatory signatures of memory encoding were evident in different brain regions. Moreover, high frequency gamma power increases occurred significantly earlier compared to low frequency theta power decreases. These results show that simple “spectral tilt” cannot explain common oscillatory changes and demonstrate that brain oscillations in different frequency bands serve different functions for memory encoding.


Original languageEnglish
Article numbere3000403
JournalPLoS Biology
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 29 Jul 2019