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The electrical activity of the brain (the electroencephalogram [EEG]) is easily recorded from electrodes placed on the scalp. The potential difference between pairs of electrodes on the scalp (bipolar derivation) or between individual scalp electrodes and a relatively inactive common reference point (referential derivation) is amplified and displayed on a computer monitor, oscilloscope, or paper. Digital systems allow the EEG to be reconstructed and displayed with any desired format and to be manipulated for more detailed analysis and also permit computerized techniques to be used to detect certain abnormalities. The characteristics of the normal EEG depend on the patient’s age and level of arousal. The rhythmic activity normally recorded represents the postsynaptic potentials of vertically oriented pyramidal cells of the cerebral cortex and is characterized by its frequency. In normal awake adults lying quietly with the eyes closed, an 8- to 13-Hz alpha rhythm is seen posteriorly in the EEG, intermixed with a variable amount of generalized faster (beta) activity (>13 Hz); the alpha rhythm is attenuated when the eyes are opened (Fig. 6-1). During drowsiness, the alpha rhythm is also attenuated; with light sleep, slower activity in the theta (4–7 Hz) and delta (<4 Hz) ranges becomes more conspicuous.


A. Normal electroencephalogram (EEG) showing a posteriorly situated 9-Hz alpha rhythm that attenuates with eye opening. B. Abnormal EEG showing irregular diffuse slow activity in an obtunded patient with encephalitis. C. Irregular slow activity in the right central region, on a diffusely slowed background, in a patient with a right parietal glioma. D. Periodic complexes occurring once every second in a patient with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Horizontal calibration: 1 s; vertical calibration: 200 μV in A, 300 μV in other panels. In this and the following figure, electrode placements are indicated at the left of each panel and accord with the international 10:20 system. A, earlobe; C, central; F, frontal; Fp, frontal polar; P, parietal; T, temporal; O, occipital. Right-sided placements are indicated by even numbers, left-sided placements by odd numbers, and midline placements by Z. (From MJ Aminoff [ed]: Aminoff’s Electrodiagnosis in Clinical Neurology, 6th ed. Oxford, Elsevier Saunders, 2012.)

Activating procedures are generally undertaken while the EEG is recorded in an attempt to provoke abnormalities. Such procedures commonly include hyperventilation (for 3 or 4 min), photic stimulation, sleep, and sleep deprivation on the night prior to the recording.

Electroencephalography is relatively inexpensive and may aid clinical management in several different contexts.


The EEG is most useful in evaluating patients with suspected epilepsy. The presence of electrographic seizure activity—i.e., of abnormal, repetitive, rhythmic activity having an abrupt onset and termination and a characteristic evolution—clearly establishes the diagnosis. The absence of such electrocerebral accompaniment to an episodic behavioral disturbance does not exclude a ...

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