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Theta oscillations modulate attentional search performance periodically.

Visual search—finding a target element among similar-looking distractors—is one of the prevailing experimental methods to study attention. Current theories of visual search postulate an early stage of feature extraction interacting with an attentional process that selects candidate targets for further analysis; in difficult search situations, this selection is iterated until the target is found. Although such theories predict an intrinsic periodicity in the neuronal substrates of attentional search, this prediction has not been extensively tested in human electrophysiology. Here, using EEG and TMS, we study attentional periodicities in visual search. EEG measurements indicated that successful and unsuccessful search trials were associated with different amounts of poststimulus oscillatory amplitude and phase-locking at ∼6 Hz and opposite prestimulus oscillatory phase at ∼6 Hz. A trial-by-trial comparison of pre- and poststimulus ∼6 Hz EEG phases revealed that the functional interplay between prestimulus brain states, poststimulus oscillations, and successful search performance was mediated by a partial phase reset of ongoing oscillations. Independently, TMS applied over occipital cortex at various intervals after search onset demonstrated a periodic pattern of interference at ∼6 Hz. The converging evidence from independent TMS and EEG measurements demonstrates that attentional search is modulated periodically by brain oscillations. This periodicity is naturally compatible with a sequential exploration by attention, although a parallel but rhythmically modulated attention spotlight cannot be entirely ruled out.



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