What Is EEG (Electroencephalography)?

EEG is an acronym for electroencephalography, which is an electrophysiological monitoring method to record electrical activity of the brain. It is typically noninvasive, with the electrodes placed along the scalp, although invasive electrodes are sometimes used in specific applications.

Electroencephalography measures voltage fluctuations resulting from ionic current within the neurons of the brain. In clinical contexts, EEG refers to the recording of the brain’s spontaneous electrical activity over a period of time, as recorded from multiple electrodes placed on the scalp. Diagnostic applications generally focus on the spectral content of EEG, that is, the type of neural oscillations (popularly called “brain waves”) that can be observed in EEG signals.

Electroencephalography is most often used to diagnose epilepsy, which causes abnormalities in EEG readings. It is also used to diagnose sleep disorders, coma, encephalopathies, and brain death. EEG used to be a first-line method of diagnosis for tumors, stroke and other focal brain disorders, but this use has decreased with the advent of high-resolution anatomical imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT).

Despite limited spatial resolution, electroencephalography 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.

Medical Uses Of Electroencephalography

A routine clinical EEG recording typically lasts 20–30 minutes (plus preparation time) and usually involves recording from scalp electrodes. Routine EEG is typically used in the following clinical circumstances:

  • to distinguish epileptic seizures from other types of spells, such as psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, syncope (fainting), sub-cortical movement disorders and migraine variants.
  • to differentiate “organic” encephalopathy or delirium from primary psychiatric syndromes such as catatonia
  • to serve as an adjunct test of brain death
  • to prognosticate, in certain instances, in patients with coma
  • to determine whether to wean anti-epileptic medications

At times, a routine EEG is not sufficient, particularly when it is necessary to record a patient while he/she is having a seizure. In this case, the patient may be admitted to the hospital for days or even weeks, while EEG is constantly being recorded (along with time-synchronized video and audio recording). A recording of an actual seizure (i.e., an ictal recording, rather than an inter-ictal recording of a possibly epileptic patient at some period between seizures) can give significantly better information about whether or not a spell is an epileptic seizure and the focus in the brain from which the seizure activity emanates.

Epilepsy monitoring is typically done to distinguish epileptic seizures from other types of spells, such as psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, syncope (fainting), sub-cortical movement disorders and migraine variants, to characterize seizures for the purposes of treatment and to localize the region of brain from which a seizure originates for work-up of possible seizure surgery

Additionally, EEG may be used to monitor certain procedures:

  • to monitor the depth of anesthesia
  • as an indirect indicator of cerebral perfusion in carotid endarterectomy
  • to monitor amobarbital effect during the Wada test

Electroencephalography can also be used in intensive care units for brain function monitoring:

  • to monitor for non-convulsive seizures/non-convulsive status epilepticus
  • to monitor the effect of sedative/anesthesia in patients in medically induced coma (for treatment of refractory seizures or increased intracranial pressure)
  • to monitor for secondary brain damage in conditions such as subarachnoid hemorrhage (currently a research method)

If a patient with epilepsy is being considered for resective surgery, it is often necessary to localize the focus (source) of the epileptic brain activity with a resolution greater than what is provided by scalp EEG. This is because the cerebrospinal fluid, skull and scalp smear the electrical potentials recorded by scalp EEG. In these cases, neurosurgeons typically implant strips and grids of electrodes (or penetrating depth electrodes) under the dura mater, through either a craniotomy or a burr hole.

The recording of these signals is referred to as electrocorticography (ECoG), subdural EEG (sdEEG) or intracranial EEG (icEEG) – all terms for the same thing. The signal recorded from ECoG is on a different scale of activity than the brain activity recorded from scalp EEG. Low voltage, high frequency components that cannot be seen easily (or at all) in scalp EEG can be seen clearly in ECoG. Further, smaller electrodes (which cover a smaller parcel of brain surface) allow even lower voltage, faster components of brain activity to be seen.

Some clinical sites record from penetrating microelectrodes. EEG may be done in all pediatric patients presenting with first onset afebrile or complex febrile seizures. EEG is not indicated for diagnosing headache. Recurring headache is a common pain problem, and this procedure is sometimes used in a search for a diagnosis, but it has no advantage over routine clinical evaluation.

How Does EEG Work?

Epileptic spike and wave discharges monitored with EEG.

Epileptic spike and wave discharges monitored with EEG. Credit: Der Lange, CC BY-SA 2.0

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 neighbors, who push their neighbors, 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 in 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 an individual neuron is far too small to be picked up by electroencephalography 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 a combination of EEG power in the gamma band and phase in the delta band relating most strongly to neuron spike activity.


Electroencephalography recording setup

An EEG recording setup. Credit: Thuglas

In conventional scalp EEG, the recording is obtained by placing electrodes on the scalp with a conductive gel or paste, usually after preparing the scalp area by light abrasion to reduce impedance due to dead skin cells. Many systems typically use electrodes, each of which is attached to an individual wire. Some systems use caps or nets into which electrodes are embedded; this is particularly common when high-density arrays of electrodes are needed.

Electrode locations and names are specified by the International 10–20 system for most clinical and research applications (except when high-density arrays are used). This system ensures that the naming of electrodes is consistent across laboratories. In most clinical applications, 19 recording electrodes (plus ground and system reference) are used. A smaller number of electrodes are typically used when recording EEG from neonates.

Additional electrodes can be added to the standard set-up when a clinical or research application demands increased spatial resolution for a particular area of the brain. High-density arrays (typically via cap or net) can contain up to 256 electrodes more-or-less evenly spaced around the scalp.

Each electrode is connected to one input of a differential amplifier (one amplifier per pair of electrodes); a common system reference electrode is connected to the other input of each differential amplifier. These amplifiers amplify the voltage between the active electrode and the reference (typically 1,000–100,000 times, or 60–100 dB of voltage gain).

In analog EEG, the signal is then filtered (next paragraph), and the electroencephalography signal is output as the deflection of pens as paper passes underneath. Most EEG systems these days, however, are digital, and the amplified signal is digitized via an analog-to-digital converter, after being passed through an anti-aliasing filter. Analog-to-digital sampling typically occurs at 256–512 Hz in clinical scalp EEG; sampling rates of up to 20 kHz are used in some research applications.

During the recording, a series of activation procedures may be used. These procedures may induce normal or abnormal EEG activity that might not otherwise be seen. These procedures include hyperventilation, photic stimulation (with a strobe light), eye closure, mental activity, sleep and sleep deprivation. During (inpatient) epilepsy monitoring, a patient’s typical seizure medications may be withdrawn.

The digital EEG signal is stored electronically and can be filtered for display. Typical settings for the high-pass filter and a low-pass filter are 0.5–1 Hz and 35–70 Hz respectively. The high-pass filter typically filters out slow artifact, such as electrogalvanic signals and movement artifact, whereas the low-pass filter filters out high-frequency artifacts, such as electromyographic signals. An additional notch filter is typically used to remove artifact caused by electrical power lines (60 Hz in the United States and 50 Hz in many other countries).

The EEG signals can be captured with opensource hardware such as OpenBCI and the signal can be processed by freely available EEG software such as EEGLAB or the Neurophysiological Biomarker Toolbox.

As part of an evaluation for epilepsy surgery, it may be necessary to insert electrodes near the surface of the brain, under the surface of the dura mater. This is accomplished via burr hole or craniotomy. This is referred to variously as “electrocorticography (ECoG)”, “intracranial Electroencephalography (I-EEG)” or “subdural Electroencephalography (SD-EEG)”. Depth electrodes may also be placed into brain structures, such as the amygdala or hippocampus, structures, which are common epileptic foci and may not be “seen” clearly by scalp EEG.

The electrocorticographic signal is processed in the same manner as digital scalp EEG (above), with a couple of caveats. ECoG is typically recorded at higher sampling rates than scalp EEG because of the requirements of Nyquist theorem—the subdural signal is composed of a higher predominance of higher frequency components. Also, many of the artifacts that affect scalp EEG do not impact ECoG, and therefore display filtering is often not needed.

A typical adult human EEG signal is about 10 µV to 100 µV in amplitude when measured from the scalp and is about 10–20 mV when measured from subdural electrodes.

Since an EEG voltage signal represents a difference between the voltages at two electrodes, the display of the EEG for the reading encephalographer may be set up in one of several ways. The representation of the EEG channels is referred to as a montage.

When analog (paper) EEGs are used, the technologist switches between montages during the recording in order to highlight or better characterize certain features of the EEG. With digital EEG, all signals are typically digitized and stored in a particular (usually referential) montage; since any montage can be constructed mathematically from any other, the EEG can be viewed by the electroencephalographer in any display montage that is desired.

The EEG is read by a clinical neurophysiologist or neurologist (depending on local custom and law regarding medical specialities), optimally one who has specific training in the interpretation of EEGs for clinical purposes. This is done by visual inspection of the waveforms, called graphoelements. The use of computer signal processing of the EEG—so-called quantitative electroencephalography—is somewhat controversial when used for clinical purposes (although there are many research uses).

EEG vs. fMRI, fNIRS and PET

Electroencephalography has several strong points as a tool for exploring brain activity. EEGs can detect changes over milliseconds, which is excellent considering an action potential takes approximately 0.5–130 milliseconds to propagate across a single neuron, depending on the type of neuron. Other methods of looking at brain activity, such as PET and fMRI have time resolution between seconds and minutes.

EEG measures the brain’s electrical activity directly, while other methods record changes in blood flow (e.g., SPECT, fMRI) or metabolic activity (e.g., PET, NIRS), which are indirect markers of brain electrical activity. EEG can be used simultaneously with fMRI so that high-temporal-resolution data can be recorded at the same time as high-spatial-resolution data, however, since the data derived from each occurs over a different time course, the data sets do not necessarily represent exactly the same brain activity.

There are technical difficulties associated with combining these two modalities, including the need to remove the MRI gradient artifact present during MRI acquisition and the ballistocardiographic artifact (resulting from the pulsatile motion of blood and tissue) from the EEG. Furthermore, currents can be induced in moving EEG electrode wires due to the magnetic field of the MRI.

EEG can be used simultaneously with NIRS without major technical difficulties. There is no influence of these modalities on each other and a combined measurement can give useful information about electrical activity as well as local hemodynamics.

Niedermeyer E.; da Silva F.L.
Electroencephalography: Basic Principles, Clinical Applications, and Related Fields
Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. ISBN 0-7817-5126-8

Top Image: Tim Sheerman-Chase, Chris Hope CC-BY