Alpha oscillatory activity is causally linked to working memory retention

Xueli Chen, Ru Ma, Wei Zhang, Ginger Qinghong Zeng, Qianying Wu, Ajiguli Yimiti, Xinzhao Xia, Jiangtian Cui, Qiongwei Liu, Xueer Meng, Junjie Bu, Qi Chen, Yu Pan, Nancy Xiaonan Yu, Shouyan Wang, Zhi-De Deng, Alexander T. Sack, Myles Mc Laughlin, Xiaochu Zhang*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Although previous studies have reported correlations between alpha oscillations and the "retention" subprocess of working memory (WM), causal evidence has been limited in human neuroscience due to the lack of delicate modulation of human brain oscillations. Conventional transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) is not suitable for demonstrating the causal evidence for parietal alpha oscillations in WM retention because of its inability to modulate brain oscillations within a short period (i.e., the retention subprocess). Here, we developed an online phase-corrected tACS system capable of precisely correcting for the phase differences between tACS and concurrent endogenous oscillations. This system permits the modulation of brain oscillations at the target stimulation frequency within a short stimulation period and is here applied to empirically demonstrate that parietal alpha oscillations causally relate to WM retention. Our experimental design included both in-phase and anti-phase alpha-tACS applied to participants during the retention subprocess of a modified Sternberg paradigm. Compared to in-phase alpha-tACS, anti-phase alpha-tACS decreased both WM performance and alpha activity. These findings strongly support a causal link between alpha oscillations and WM retention and illustrate the broad application prospects of phase-corrected tACS.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere3001999
Number of pages27
JournalPlos Biology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2023

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