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The electroencephalogram (EEG) is a recording of the electrical activity of the brain from the scalp. The first recordings were made by Hans Berger in 1929 although similar studies had been carried out in animals as early as 1870. The waveforms recorded are thought to reflect the activity of the surface of the brain, the cortex. This activity is influenced by the electrical activity from the brain structures underneath the cortex.
The nerve cells in the brain produce signals that are called action potentials. These action potentials move from one cell to another across a gap called the synapse. Special chemicals called neurotransmitters help the signals to move across the gap. There are two types of neurotransmitters, one will help the action potential to move to the next cell, the other will stop it moving to another nerve cell.
The brain normally works hard to keep an equal amount of each of these neurotransmitters in the brain.
EEG activity is quite small, measured in microvolts (µV) with the main frequencies of interest up to approximately 30 Hertz (Hz). Electrodes
Small metal discs called electrodes are placed on the scalp in special positions. These positions are identified by the recordist who measures the head using the International 10/20 System. This relies on taking measurements between certain fixed points on the head. The electrodes are then placed at points that are 10% and 20% of these distances. Each electrode site is labelled with a letter and a number. The letter refers to the area of brain underlying the electrode e.g. F - Frontal lobe and T - Temporal lobe. Even numbers denote the right side of the head and odd numbers the left side of the head.
There is a great variety of electrodes that can be used. The majority are small discs of stainless steel, tin, gold or silver covered with a silver chloride coating. These normally have a lead attached. Alternative methods consist of a cap in which the electrodes are already imbedded.
10/20 System of electrode placement
EEG machines use a differential amplifier to produce each channel or trace of activity. Each amplifier has two inputs. An electrode is connected to each of the inputs.Differential amplifiers measure the voltage difference between the two signals at each of its inputs. The resulting signal is amplified and then displayed as a channel of EEG activity.
The manner in which pairs of electrodes are connected to each amplifier of the EEG machine is called a montage. Each montage will use one of three standard recording derivations, common reference, average reference or bipolar.
Common reference derivation: Each amplifier records the difference between a scalp electrode and a reference electrode. The same reference electrode is used for all channels. Electrodes frequently used as the reference electrode are A1, A2, the ear electrodes, or A1 and A2 linked together.
Average reference derivation: Activity from all the electrodes are measured, summed together and averaged before being passed through a high value resistor. The resulting signal is then used as a reference electrode and connected to input 2 of each amplifier and is essentially inactive. All EEG systems will allow the user to choose which electrodes are to be included in this calculation.
Common reference derivation
Bipolar derivation: These sequentially link electrodes together usually in straight lines from the front to the back of the head or transversely across the head. For example the first amplifier may have electrodes FP1 and F3 connected to it and the second amplifier F3 and C3 connected to it.
Average reference derivation
Analogue EEG instruments
Conventional analogue instruments consist of an amplifier, a galvanometer and a writing device. A galvanometer is a coil of wire inside a magnetic field. The output signal from the amplifier passes through the wire causing the coil to oscillate. A pen mounted on the galvanometer moves up and down each time the coil moves. The pen draws the trace onto paper moving below it. The amplifier output is controlled by high and low frequency filters and sensitivity controls. The high and low frequency filter values will set the window within which the EEG activity is recorded. This is known as the bandwidth. The sensitivity controls the size of the activity displayed. For example a sensitivity of 10 µV/mm means that a signal with an amplitude of 100 µ V will produce a 1 cm vertical deflection.
The speed at which the paper moves on will also affect the appearance of the waveforms.
Digital EEG instruments
A digital EEG system converts the waveform into a series of numerical values. This process is known as Analogue-to-Digital conversion (ADC).The values can be stored in the computer memory, manipulated and then redisplayed as waveforms on a computer screen. The rate at which the waveform data is sampled in order to convert it into a numerical format is known as the sampling rate.
The sampling rate is usually expressed in Hz, for example 240 Hz is 240 times per second. The minimum acceptable sampling rate is 2.5 times greater than the highest frequency of interest but most digital EEG systems will sample at 240 Hz.
Some recordings which involve recording activity directly from the brain surface, may have activity of a higher frequency, for example 200 Hz. Therefore some digital EEG systems will have optional sampling rates of 480 Hz available.
Sampling rate of 240 Hz
Sampling at rates lower than this will mean that when the signal is converted back to analogue form, it will not resemble the original waveform
A second factor that affects the accuracy of the waveform is sampling skew. Sampling skew occurs when all channels are not sampled simultaneously. Many digital EEG systems sample channel 1 first, then sample channel 2, then channel 3 etc. The time lag between sampling of each channel is known as sampling skew. To reduce the sampling skew, some digital systems use burst mode sampling. This increases the speed between successive channels sampling in order to reduce the amount of sampling skew.
Sampling rate of 50 Hz
A third factor that affects the accuracy of digital EEG waveforms is the display. The accuracy of a monitor display depends on the number of points or pixels that are available. The number of pixels available is referred to as the screen resolution. Screen resolution is described in numbers that represent the pixels available in the horizontal and vertical axis.
A VGA display has a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels while a monitor with a Super VGA display will have a screen resolution of around 1024 x 768 pixels. A typical page of EEG contains 10 seconds of data. A digital EEG system, sampling at rates of 240 Hz will need to display 2400 samples horizontally for each recording channel. The highest screen resolutions available today do not have enough pixels to match the number of data samples. Systems that draw every other sample or every third sample in order to match the screen resolution will have the effect of reducing the sampling rate and displaying incomplete data. An accurate digital system will draw two data samples per screen pixel. This means that all data points can be displayed and sampling rates will not be decreased.
EEG signals that have been digitised can be manipulated to change the montage 'on-line' at the time of recording or 'off-line' after the recording is completed. This 'remontaging' is accomplished by recording all EEG channels with a common reference electrode. Regardless of the montage used to display the data while it is being recorded, data is stored into the computer memory in common reference mode. This allows the data to be displayed using different montages at a later time. Since digital systems store the analogue signal as numerical values, remontaging is a simple subtraction process which results in cancellation of the common reference.
An example is shown in the next figure. The reference electrode A1 is common to both channels on input 2. It has the identical value in each channel. Remontaging these two channels together into one new channel is by subtraction which mathematically will cancel the value at the reference electrode. The resulting channel will therefore display the potential difference between F3 (input) 1 and F4 (input 2).