Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Effective processing of sensory input in daily life requires attentional selection and amplification of relevant input and, just as importantly, attenuation of irrelevant information. It has been proposed that top–down modulation of oscillatory alpha band activity (8–14 Hz) serves to allocate resources to various regions, depending on task demands. In previous work, we showed that contralateral somatosensory alpha activity decreases to facilitate processing of an anticipated target stimulus in a tactile discrimination task. In the current study, we asked whether somatosensory alpha activity is also modulated when expecting incoming distracting stimuli on the nonattended side. We hypothesized that an ipsilateral increase of alpha to suppress distracters would be required for optimal task performance. We recorded magneto-encephalography while subjects performed a tactile stimulus discrimination task where a cue directed attention either to their left or right hand. Distracters were presented simultaneously to the unattended hand. We found that alpha power contralateral to the attended hand decreased, whereas ipsilateral alpha power increased. In addition, posterior alpha power showed a general increase. Importantly, these three alpha components all contributed to discrimination performance. This study further extends the notion that alpha band activity is involved in shaping the functional architecture of the working brain by determining the engagement and disengagement of specific regions: Contralateral alpha decreases to facilitate stimulus detection, whereas ipsilateral alpha increases when active suppression of distracters is required. Importantly, the ipsilateral alpha increase is crucial for optimal task performance.