Two largely independent research lines use rhythmic sensory stimulation to study visual processing. Despite the use of strikingly similar experimental paradigms, they differ crucially in their notion of the stimulus-driven periodic brain responses: one regards them mostly as synchronized (entrained) intrinsic brain rhythms; the other assumes they are predominantly evoked responses [classically termed steady-state responses (SSRs)] that add to the ongoing brain activity. This conceptual difference can produce contradictory predictions about, and interpretations of, experimental outcomes. The effect of spatial attention on brain rhythms in the alpha band (8 -13 Hz) is one such instance: alpha-range SSRs have typically been found to increase in power when participants focus their spatial attention on laterally presented stimuli, in line with a gain control of the visual evoked response. In nearly identical experiments, retinotopic decreases in entrained alpha-band power have been reported, in line with the inhibitory function of intrinsic alpha. Here we reconcile these contradictory findings by showing that they result from a small but far-reaching difference between two common approaches to EEG spectral decomposition. In a new analysis of previously published human EEG data, recorded during bilateral rhythmic visual stimulation,wefind the typical SSR gain effect when emphasizing stimulus-locked neural activity and the typical retinotopic alpha suppression when focusing on ongoing rhythms. These opposite but parallel effects suggest that spatial attention may bias the neural processing of dynamic visual stimulation via two complementary neural mechanisms.
Keitel, C., Keitel, A., Benwell, C. S. Y., Daube, C., Thut, G., & Gross, J. (2019). Stimulus-driven brain rhythms within the alpha band: The attentional-modulation conundrum. Journal of Neuroscience, 39(16), 3119–3129. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1633-18.2019