tACS phase locking of frontal midline theta oscillations disrupts working memory performance

Bankim S. Chander, Matthias Witkowski, Christoph Braun, Stephen E. Robinson, Jan Born, Leonardo G. Cohen, Niels Birbaumer, Surjo R. Soekadar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Frontal midline theta (FMT) oscillations (4–8 Hz) are strongly related to cognitive and executive control during mental tasks such as memory processing, arithmetic problem solving or sustained attention. While maintenance of temporal order information during a working memory (WM) task was recently linked to FMT phase, a positive correlation between FMT power, WM demand and WM performance was shown. However, the relationship between these measures is not well understood, and it is unknown whether purposeful FMT phase manipulation during a WM task impacts FMT power and WM performance. Here we present evidence that FMT phase manipulation mediated by transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) can block WM demand-related FMT power increase (FMTΔpower) and disrupt normal WM performance. Methods: Twenty healthy volunteers were assigned to one of two groups (group A, group B) and performed a 2-back task across a baseline block (block 1) and an intervention block (block 2) while 275-sensor magnetoencephalography (MEG) was recorded. After no stimulation was applied during block 1, participants in group A received tACS oscillating at their individual FMT frequency over the prefrontal cortex (PFC) while group B received sham stimulation during block 2. After assessing and mapping phase locking values (PLV) between the tACS signal and brain oscillatory activity across the whole brain, FMT power and WM performance were assessed and compared between blocks and groups. Results: During block 2 of group A but not B, FMT oscillations showed increased PLV across task-related cortical areas underneath the frontal tACS electrode. While WM task-related FMTΔpower and WM performance were comparable across groups in block 1, tACS resulted in lower FMTΔpower and WM performance compared to sham stimulation in block 2. Conclusion: tACS-related manipulation of FMT phase can disrupt WM performance and influence WM task-related FMTΔpower. This finding may have important implications for the treatment of brain disorders such as depression and attention deficit disorder associated with abnormal regulation of FMT activity or disorders characterized by dysfunctional coupling of brain activity, e.g., epilepsy, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease (AD/PD).

Original languageEnglish
Article number120
JournalFrontiers in Cellular Neuroscience
Issue numberMAY
Publication statusPublished - May 6 2016


  • Entrainment
  • Frontal midline theta (FMT)
  • Magnetoencephalography (MEG)
  • Transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS)
  • Working memory performance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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