From diagnosing brain disorders to cognitive enhancement, 100 years of EEG have transformed neuroscience

Neuroprosthetics: from sensorimotor to cognitive disorders ...

Electroencephalography, or EEG, was invented 100 years ago. In the years since the invention of this device to monitor brain electricity, it has had an incredible impact on how scientists study the human brain.

Since its first use, the EEG has shaped researchers’ understanding of cognition, from perception to memory. It has also been important for diagnosing and guiding treatment of multiple brain disorders, including epilepsy.

I am a cognitive neuroscientist who uses EEG to study how people remember events from their past. The EEG’s 100-year anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on this discovery’s significance in neuroscience and medicine.

Discovery of EEG

On July 6, 1924, psychiatrist Hans Berger performed the first EEG recording on a human, a 17-year-old boy undergoing neurosurgery. At the time, Berger and other researchers were performing electrical recordings on the brains of animals.

What set Berger apart was his obsession with finding the physical basis of what he called psychic energy, or mental effort, in people. Through a series of experiments spanning his early career, Berger measured brain volume and temperature to study changes in mental processes such as intellectual work, attention and desire.

He then turned to recording electrical activity. Though he recorded the first traces of EEG in the human brain in 1924, he did not publish the results until 1929. Those five intervening years were a tortuous phase of self-doubt about the source of the EEG signal in the brain and refining the experimental setup. Berger recorded hundreds of EEGs on multiple subjects, including his own children, with both experimental successes and setbacks.

This is among the first EEG readings published in Hans Berger's study. The top trace is the EGG while the bottom is a reference trace of 10 Hz.

Two EEG traces, the top more irregular in rhythm than the bottom.
Hans Berger/Über das Elektrenkephalogramm des Menchen. Archives für Psychiatrie. 1929; 87:527-70 via Wikimedia Commons

Finally convinced of his results, he published a series of papers in the journal Archiv für Psychiatrie and had hopes of winning a Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, the research community doubted his results, and years passed before anyone else started using EEG in their own research.

Berger was eventually nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1940. But Nobels were not awarded that year in any category due to World War II and Germany’s occupation of Norway.

Neural oscillations

When many neurons are active at the same time, they produce an electrical signal strong enough to spread instantaneously through the conductive tissue of the brain, skull and scalp. EEG electrodes placed on the head can record these electrical signals.

Since the discovery of EEG, researchers have shown that neural activity oscillates at specific frequencies. In his initial EEG recordings in 1924, Berger noted the predominance of oscillatory activity that cycled eight to 12 times per second, or 8 to 12 hertz, named alpha oscillations. Since the discovery of alpha rhythms, there have been many…

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