Midfrontal theta activity in psychiatric illness: an index of cognitive vulnerabilities across disorders

Grainne McLoughlin, Mate Gyurkovics, Jason Palmer, Scott Makeig

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


There is an urgent need to identify the mechanisms that contribute to atypical thinking and behavior associated with psychiatric illness. Behavioral and brain measures of cognitive control are associated with a variety of psychiatric disorders and conditions as well as daily life functioning. Recognition of the importance of cognitive control in human behavior has led to intensive research into behavioral and neurobiological correlates. Oscillations in the theta band (4–8 Hz) over medial frontal recording sites are becoming increasingly established as a direct neural index of certain aspects of cognitive control. In this review, we point toward evidence that theta acts to coordinate multiple neural processes in disparate brain regions during task processing to optimize behavior. Theta-related signals in human electroencephalography include the N2, the error-related negativity, and measures of theta power in the (time-)frequency domain. We investigate how these theta signals are affected in a wide range of psychiatric conditions with known deficiencies in cognitive control: anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and substance abuse. Theta-related control signals and their temporal consistency were found to differ in most patient groups compared with healthy control subjects, suggesting fundamental deficits in reactive and proactive control. Notably, however, clinical studies directly investigating the role of theta in the coordination of goal-directed processes across different brain regions are uncommon and are encouraged in future research. A finer-grained analysis of flexible, subsecond-scale functional networks in psychiatric disorders could contribute to a dimensional understanding of psychopathology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)173-182
Number of pages10
JournalBiological psychiatry
Issue number2
Early online date3 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jan 2022


  • EEG
  • oscillations
  • ERP
  • cognitive control
  • theta


Dive into the research topics of 'Midfrontal theta activity in psychiatric illness: an index of cognitive vulnerabilities across disorders'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this