Sustained frontal midline theta enhancements during effortful listening track working memory demands

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Recent studies demonstrate that frontal midline theta power (4–8 Hz) enhancements in the electroencephalogram (EEG) relate to effortful listening. It has been proposed that these enhancements reflect working memory demands. Here, the need to retain auditory information in working memory was manipulated in a 2-interval 2-alternative forced-choice delayed pitch discrimination task (“Which interval contained the higher pitch?”). On each trial, two square wave stimuli differing in pitch at an individual's ˜70.7% correct threshold were separated by a 3-second ISI. In a ‘Roving’ condition, the lowest pitch stimulus was randomly selected on each trial (uniform distribution from 840 to 1160 Hz). In a ‘Fixed’ condition, the lowest pitch was always 979 Hz. Critically, the ‘Fixed’ condition allowed one to know the correct response immediately following the first stimulus (e.g., if the first stimulus is 979 Hz, the second must be higher). In contrast, the ‘Roving’ condition required retention of the first tone for comparison to the second. Frontal midline theta enhancements during the ISI were only observed for the ‘Roving’ condition. Alpha (8–13 Hz) enhancements were apparent during the ISI, but did not differ significantly between conditions. Since conditions were matched for accuracy at threshold, results suggest that frontal midline theta enhancements will not always accompany difficult listening. Mixed results in the literature regarding frontal midline theta enhancements may be related to differences between tasks in regards to working memory demands. Alpha enhancements may reflect task general effortful listening processes.

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