Load-dependent modulation of alpha oscillations during working memory encoding and retention in young and older adults

Sabrina Sghirripa, Lynton Graetz, Ashley Merkin, Nigel C. Rogasch, John G. Semmler, Mitchell R. Goldsworthy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Working memory (WM) is vulnerable to age-related decline, particularly under high loads. Visual alpha oscillations contribute to WM performance in younger adults, and although alpha decreases in power and frequency with age, it is unclear if alpha activity supports WM in older adults. We recorded electroencephalography (EEG) while 24 younger (aged 18–35 years) and 30 older (aged 50–86) adults performed a modified Sternberg task with varying load conditions. Older adults demonstrated slower reaction times at all loads, but there were no significant age differences in WM capacity. Regardless of age, alpha power decreased and alpha frequency increased with load during encoding, and the magnitude of alpha suppression during retention was larger at higher loads. While alpha power during retention was lower than fixation in older, but not younger adults, the relative change from fixation was not significantly different between age groups. Individual differences in alpha power did not predict performance for either age groups or at any WM loads. We demonstrate that alpha power and frequency are modulated in a similar task- and load-dependent manner during WM in both older and younger adults when WM performance is comparable across age groups. Impact statement: Aging is associated with a marked decrease in the power and frequency of alpha oscillations. Here, we demonstrate that when verbal working memory performance is matched across age groups, alpha power and frequency are modulated in a similar task- and load-dependent manner in both young and older adults.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere13719
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished or Issued - Feb 2021


  • EEG
  • alpha oscillations
  • cognitive aging
  • working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Biological Psychiatry

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