eLife digest | On cross-frequency phase-phase coupling between theta and gamma oscillations in the hippocampus

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On cross-frequency phase-phase coupling between theta and gamma oscillations in the hippocampus

eLife digest

Affiliation details

Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil

Neuroscientists have long sought to understand how the brain works by analyzing its electrical activity. Placing electrodes on the scalp or lowering them into the brain itself reveals rhythmic waves of activity known as oscillations. These arise when large numbers of neurons fire in synchrony. Recordings reveal that the frequency of these oscillations – the number of cycles of a wave per second, measured in Hertz – can vary between brain regions, and within a single region over time. Moreover, oscillations with different frequencies can co-exist and interact with one another.

Within the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory, two types of oscillations dominate: theta waves and gamma waves. Theta waves are relatively slow waves, with a frequency between 5 and 10 Hertz. Gamma waves are faster, with a frequency of up to 100 Hertz. Recent work has suggested that gamma waves and theta waves show a phenomenon called phase-phase coupling. Since gamma waves are faster than theta waves, multiple cycles of gamma can occur during a single cycle of theta. Phase-phase coupling is the idea that gamma and theta waves align themselves, such that gamma waves always begin at the same relative position within a theta wave. This was thought to help the hippocampus to encode memories.

Using computer simulations and recordings from the rat hippocampus, Scheffer-Teixeira and Tort have now reexamined the evidence for theta-gamma phase-phase coupling. The new results suggest that previous reports describing the phenomenon may have relied on inadequate statistical techniques. Using stringent control analyses, Scheffer-Teixeira and Tort find no evidence for prominent theta-gamma phase-phase coupling in the hippocampus. Instead, the simulations suggest that what appeared to be statistically significant coupling may in reality be an artifact of the previous analysis.

Phase-phase coupling of theta and gamma waves has also been reported in the human hippocampus. The next step therefore is to apply these more robust analysis techniques to data from the human brain. While revisiting previously accepted findings may not always be popular, it will likely be essential if neuroscientists want to accurately understand how new memories are formed.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.20515.002