Alpha waves are neural oscillations in the frequency range of 7.5-12.5 Hz arising from synchronous and coherent (in phase or constructive) electrical activity of thalamic pacemaker cells in humans. They are also called Berger's wave in memory of the founder of EEG.
Alpha waves are one type of brain waves detected either by electroencephalography (EEG) or magnetoencephalography (MEG) and predominantly originate from the occipital lobe during wakeful relaxation with closed eyes. Alpha waves are reduced with open eyes, drowsiness and sleep. Historically, they were thought to represent the activity of the visual cortex in an idle state. More recent papers have argued that they inhibit areas of the cortex not in use, or alternatively that they play an active role in network coordination and communication. Occipital alpha waves during periods of eyes closed are the strongest EEG brain signals.
An alpha-like variant called mu (μ) can be found over the motor cortex (central scalp) that is reduced with movement, or the intention to move. Alpha waves do not start to appear until three years of age.
History of alpha waves
Alpha waves were discovered by German neurologist Hans Berger, most famous for his invention of the EEG. Alpha waves were among the first waves documented by Berger, along with beta waves, and he displayed an interest in "alpha blockage", the process by which alpha waves decrease and beta waves increase upon a subject opening their eyes. This distinction earned the alpha wave the alternate title of "Berger's Wave".
Berger took a cue from Russian physiologist Pravdich-Neminski, who used a string galvanometer to create a photograph of the electrical activity of a dog's brain. Using similar techniques, Berger confirmed the existence of electrical activity in the human brain. He first did this by presenting a stimulus to hospital patients with skull damage and measuring the electrical activity in their brains. Later he ceased the stimulus method and began measuring the natural rhythmic electrical cycles in the brain. The first natural rhythm he documented was what would become known as the alpha wave. Berger was very thorough and meticulous in his data-gathering, but despite his brilliance, he did not feel confident enough to publish his discoveries until at least five years after he had made them. In 1931, he published his first findings on alpha waves in the journal Archiv für Psychiatrie. He was originally met with derision for his EEG technique and his subsequent alpha and brain wave discoveries. His technique and findings did not gain widespread acceptance in the psychological community until 1937, when he gained the approval of the famous physiologist Lord Adrian, who took a particular interest in alpha waves.
Alpha waves again gained recognition in the early 1960s and 1970s with the creation of a biofeedback theory relating to brain waves (see below). Such biofeedback, referred to as a kind of neurofeedback, relating to alpha waves is the conscious elicitation of alpha brainwaves by a subject. Two different researchers in the United States explored this concept through unrelated experiments. Dr. Joe Kamiya, of the University of Chicago, discovered that some individuals had the conscious ability to recognize when they were creating alpha waves, and could increase their alpha activity. These individuals were motivated through a reward system from Kamiya. The second progenitor of biofeedback is Dr. Barry Sterman, from the University of California, Los Angeles. He was working with monitoring brain waves in cats and found that, when the cats were trained to withhold motor movement, they released SMR, or mu, waves, a wave similar to alpha waves. Using a reward system, he further trained these cats to enter this state more easily. Later, he was approached by the United States Air Force to test the effects of a jet fuel that was known to cause seizures in humans. Sterman tested the effects of this fuel on the previously-trained cats, and discovered that they had a higher resistance to seizures than non-trained cats.
Alpha wave biofeedback has gained interest for having some successes in humans for seizure suppression and for treatment of depression.
Types of alpha waves
Some researchers posit that there are at least three forms of alpha waves, which may all have different functions in the wake-sleep cycle.
Alpha waves are present at different stages of the wake-sleep cycle. The most widely-researched is during the relaxed mental state, where the subject is at rest with eyes closed, but is not tired or asleep. This alpha activity is centered in the occipital lobe, and is presumed to originate there, although there has been recent speculation that it instead has a thalamic origin. This wave begins appearing at around four months, and is initially a frequency of 4 waves per second. The mature alpha wave, at 10 waves per second, is firmly established by age 3.
The second occurrence of alpha wave activity is during REM sleep. As opposed to the awake form of alpha activity, this form is located in a frontal-central location in the brain. The purpose of alpha activity during REM sleep has yet to be fully understood. Currently, there are arguments that alpha patterns are a normal part of REM sleep, and for the notion that it indicates a semi-arousal period. It has been suggested that this alpha activity is inversely related to REM sleep pressure.
The third occurrence of alpha wave activity is the alpha-delta or slow-wave (SWS) state. This activity spreads across the brain in an anterior-posterior gradient.
It has long been believed that alpha waves indicate a wakeful period during sleep. This has been attributed to studies where subjects report non-refreshing sleep and have EEG records reporting high levels of alpha intrusion into sleep. This occurrence is known as alpha wave intrusion. However, it is possible that these explanations may be misleading, as they only focus on alpha waves being generated from the occipital lobe.
Alpha wave intrusion
Alpha wave intrusion occurs when alpha waves appear with non-REM sleep when delta activity is expected. It is hypothesized to be associated with fibromyalgia, although the study may be inadequate due to a small sampling size.
Despite this, alpha wave intrusion has not been significantly linked to any major sleep disorder, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and major depression. However, it is common in chronic fatigued patients, and may amplify the effects of other sleep disorders.
Given the alpha wave's connection with relaxed mental states, many people have latched onto the idea of utilizing this state through a technique called biofeedback training. This technique utilizes EEG to indicate to a subject or trainer when the subject is in an alpha wave state, which the subject is then instructed to remain in.
There are several different prospects of this training that are currently being explored. Arguably, the most popular one is the use of this training in meditation. Zen-trained meditation masters produce noticeably more alpha waves during meditation. This fact has led to a popular trend of biofeedback training programs for everyday stress relief.
There are other uses of biofeedback training beyond therapy. Defense Department researchers are exploring biofeedback as a way of getting captured soldiers to create alpha waves, potentially foiling enemy lie detectors. Biofeedback training has also been receiving attention as a possible way of monitoring attention. It has been theorized that teaching machines could use biofeedback as a way of monitoring children's attention, with the appearance of alpha waves signaling a lapse of attention.
Following this lapse-of-attention line of thought, a recent study indicates that alpha waves may be used to predict mistakes. In it, MEGs measured increases of up to 25% in alpha brain wave activity before mistakes occurred. This study used common sense: alpha waves indicate idleness, and mistakes are often made when a person is doing something automatically, or "on auto-pilot", and not paying attention to the task they are performing. After the mistake was noticed by the subject, there was a decrease in alpha waves as the subject began paying more attention. This study hopes to promote the use of wireless EEG technology on employees in high-risk fields, such as air traffic controlling, to monitor alpha wave activity and gauge the attention level of the employee.
Alpha wave artifacts
As demonstrated by Adrian Upton, it is possible for extraneous sources (ambient fluctuations detected with a mound of Jell-O in Upton's experiments) to cause signals to appear on an EEG readout, causing false signals to be interpreted as healthy alpha waves. This finding suggests that it is possible that a non-flat EEG could lead to the interpretation that a patient is still living when in fact he or she is long dead.
Cecil Adams from The Straight Dope discusses this scenario:
Sometimes it's claimed Jell-O brainwaves are identical to a healthy adult's. That's clearly a stretch, but the Jell-O EEG readings do look pretty similar to a normal human alpha rhythm. Alpha waves are observed when a patient is awake and resting with eyes closed, and in some kinds of sleep and reversible coma. True, the Jell-O waves are a little slower and of much lower amplitude, barely within normal human limits, but that doesn't tell you much by itself. Hypoxia, encephalitis, and other medical conditions can cause reduced frequency and amplitude, as can drug use.
- Delta wave – (0.1 – 3 Hz)
- Theta wave – (4 – 7 Hz)
- Alpha wave – (8 – 15 Hz)
- Mu wave – (7.5 – 12.5 Hz)
- SMR wave – (12.5 – 15.5 Hz)
- Beta wave – (16 – 31 Hz)
- Gamma wave – (32 – 100 Hz)
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