Source of EEG activity

The brain’s electrical charge is maintained by billions of neurons. Neurons are electrically charged (or “polarized”) by membrane transport proteins that pump ions across their membranes. Neurons are constantly exchanging ions with the extracellular milieu, for example to maintain resting potential and to propagate action potentials. Ions of similar charge repel each other, and when many ions are pushed out of many neurons at the same time, they can push their neighbours, who push their neighbours, and so on, in a wave. This process is known as volume conduction. When the wave of ions reaches the electrodes on the scalp, they can push or pull electrons on the metal on the electrodes. Since metal conducts the push and pull of electrons easily, the difference in push or pull voltages between any two electrodes can be measured by a voltmeter. Recording these voltages over time gives us the EEG.

The electric potential generated by single neuron is far too small to be picked up by EEG or MEG.EEG activity therefore always reflects the summation of the synchronous activity of thousands or millions of neurons that have similar spatial orientation. If the cells do not have similar spatial orientation, their ions do not line up and create waves to be detected. Pyramidal neurons of the cortex are thought to produce the most EEG signal because they are well-aligned and fire together. Because voltage fields fall off with the square of distance, activity from deep sources is more difficult to detect than currents near the skull.

Scalp EEG activity shows oscillations at a variety of frequencies. Several of these oscillations have characteristic frequency ranges, spatial distributions and are associated with different states of brain functioning (e.g., waking and the various sleep stages). These oscillations represent synchronized activity over a network of neurons. The neuronal networks underlying some of these oscillations are understood (e.g., the thalamocortical resonance underlying sleep spindles), while many others are not (e.g., the system that generates the posterior basic rhythm). Research that measures both EEG and neuron spiking finds the relationship between the two is complex with the power of surface EEG in only two bands (gamma and delta) relating to neuron spike activity.


An EEG recording 


Epileptic spike and wave discharges monitored with EEG

Electroencephalography (EEG) is the recording of electrical activity along the scalp. EEG measures voltage fluctuations resulting from ionic current flows within the neurons of the brain.In clinical contexts, EEG refers to the recording of the brain’s spontaneous electrical activity over a short period of time, usually 20–40 minutes, as recorded from multiple electrodes placed on the scalp. Diagnostic applications generally focus on thespectral content of EEG, that is, the type of neural oscillations that can be observed in EEG signals. In neurology, the main diagnostic application of EEG is in the case ofepilepsy, as epileptic activity can create clear abnormalities on a standard EEG study.A secondary clinical use of EEG is in the diagnosis of coma, encephalopathies, and brain death. A third clinical use of EEG is for studies of sleep and sleep disorders where recordings are typically done for one full night, sometimes more. EEG used to be a first-line method for the diagnosis of tumors, stroke and other focal brain disorders,but this use has decreased with the advent of anatomical imaging techniques with high (<1 mm) spatial resolution such as MRI and CT. Despite limited spatial resolution, EEG continues to be a valuable tool for research and diagnosis, especially when millisecond-range temporal resolution (not possible with CT or MRI) is required.

Derivatives of the EEG technique include evoked potentials (EP), which involves averaging the EEG activity time-locked to the presentation of a stimulus of some sort (visual,somatosensory, or auditory). Event-related potentials (ERPs) refer to averaged EEG responses that are time-locked to more complex processing of stimuli; this technique is used in cognitive science, cognitive psychology, and psychophysiological research.


  1. It’s hard to find knowledgeable people on this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

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