Cognitive electrophysiology in research and therapy

Authors: Simon Brežan, Vita Štukovnik and prof. David B Vodušek, MD, PhD. Cognitive neuroscience searches for neuronal correlates of higher mental functions. Various neuropsychological phenomena are commonly explored by three basic approaches: functional imaging methods (e.g. functional magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography, electrophysiological methods), structural imaging methods (e.g. magnetic resonance imaging) and behavioural experiments. Electrophysiological methods measure electrical activity of nerve cells. Their major advantage is their high temporal resolution, compared to other methods of functional neuroimaging, which allow better spatial identification of processes in central nervous system. Recording of bioelectrical signals at the level of milliseconds and therefore high sensitivity for detection of functional changes in brain activity allows the study of basic mechanisms of information processing, underlying the operational system of the brain and the very mechanisms of mind. These can in no way be explained by other, activitylocalization based techniques. The most frequently used electrophysiological methods in research of cognition are electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG), with their specific applications and methods of information-rich signal analysis. The basis of cognitive electrophysiological research represents the application of such methods while the participants are solving different cognitive tasks, which measure specific and well defined underlying cognitive processes. We will present some methods of EEG signal analysis (e.g. event-related potentials- ERPs, EEG-coherence), with the example of one of the basic cognitive functions, required for human intelligent and goaldriven behaviour – working memory. EEG-coherence is one of the newer methods of EEG signal analysis, and is suitable for studying integrative brain function. It measures interregional synchronized oscillatory electrical activity of neurons as one possible mechanism of the functional integration/coupling of different communicating brain areas, activated by different distributed higher brain processes and behavioural modes, for example working memory. In higher mental functions, the function is always mediated by synchronized interaction of many anatomically separated brain areas. Different EEG phenomena can be observed during normal alertness as well as during changed mental states, such as hypnosis. Hypnosis is a process in which critical thinking faculties of the mind are bypassed and a type of selective thinking and perception is established. Some theories attempt to explain hypnotic phenomena in terms of alterations in brain activity. Hypnosis has been shown to involve a change from the alert beta state to a predominantly alpha-theta state, with a strong evidence for a continuum between normal waking states through relaxed states (with predominantly alpha activity) to profound hypnotic states (where theta activity is most prominent). It was also proposed that hypnosis is characterized by a shift in brain activity from anterior (front) to posterior (back) pattern. Additionally, EEG-coherence research indicates that alterations in functional connectivity of the brain may be regarded as a neuronal correlate of hypnosis, in which separate cognitive modules and subsystems may be temporarily incapable of communicating with each other normally.

Besides the usage of EEG in “mind-reading”, it may be also utilized as a basic tool in some therapeutical “mind-modulating” procedures. EEG has been commonly used method to guide the most efficient application of neurofeedback. Neurofeedback (NFB), also called neurotherapy or EEG biofeedback is therapy technique that provides the user with the realtime feedback on brainwave activity, as measured by electrodes on the scalp. That information is shown back to the participant and the brain gets rewarded for changing its own activity to normalized EEG patterns (e.g. more alpha rhythm) that optimize mental functioning. NFB is a direct training of brain function, by which the brain learns to function more efficiently and represents a gradual learning process, which could apply to any aspect of brain function that can be measured. Areas where neurofeedback has been used include treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), substance abuse, anxiety, depression, epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive disorder, learning disabilities, bipolar disorder, cognitive impairment, migraines, headaches, chronic pain, autism, sleep dysregulation etc. Neurofeedback was also used for optimizing performance in healthy individuals. Some examples of NFB usage will be presented in the lecture.