Changes in theta and alpha oscillatory signatures of attentional control in older and middle age

Eleanor Huizeling, Hongfang Wang, Carol Holland, Klaus Kessler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Recent behavioural research has reported age-related changes in the costs of refocusing attention from a temporal (rapid serial visual presentation) to a spatial (visual search) task. Using magnetoencephalography, we have now compared the neural signatures of attention refocusing between three age groups (19–30, 40–49 and 60+ years) and found differences in task-related modulation and cortical localisation of alpha and theta oscillations. Efficient, faster refocusing in the youngest group compared to both middle age and older groups was reflected in parietal theta effects that were significantly reduced in the older groups. Residual parietal theta activity in older individuals was beneficial to attentional refocusing and could reflect preserved attention mechanisms. Slowed refocusing of attention, especially when a target required consolidation, in the older and middle-aged adults was accompanied by a posterior theta deficit and increased recruitment of frontal (middle-aged and older groups) and temporal (older group only) areas, demonstrating a posterior to anterior processing shift. Theta but not alpha modulation correlated with task performance, suggesting that older adults' stronger and more widely distributed alpha power modulation could reflect decreased neural precision or dedifferentiation but requires further investigation. Our results demonstrate that older adults present with different alpha and theta oscillatory signatures during attentional control, reflecting cognitive decline and, potentially, also different cognitive strategies in an attempt to compensate for decline.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4314-4337
Number of pages24
JournalEuropean Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number1
Early online date5 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

© 2021 The Authors. European Journal of Neuroscience published by Federation of European Neuroscience Societies and John Wiley & Sons Ltd. This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited and is not used for commercial purposes.

Funding: The Rees Jeffreys Road Fund; School of Life and Health Sciences, Aston University; The Wellcome Trust; Dr Hadwen Trust for Humane Research.


  • ageing
  • attentional control
  • brain oscillations
  • magnetoencephalography
  • middle age


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