Analyzing non-invasive recordings of electroencephalography (EEG) directly in sensor space is a convenient and standard way of working with this type of data. However, volume conduction introduces considerable challenges for sensor space analysis. Here, we illustrate how different types of activity overlap on the level of individual sensors.
Analyzing non-invasive recordings of electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) directly in sensor space, using the signal from individual sensors, is a convenient and standard way of working with this type of data. However, volume conduction introduces considerable challenges for sensor space analysis. While the general idea of signal mixing due to volume conduction in EEG/MEG is recognized, the implications have not yet been clearly exemplified. Here, we illustrate how different types of activity overlap on the level of individual sensors. We show spatial mixing in the context of alpha rhythms, which are known to have generators in different areas of the brain. Using simulations with a realistic 3D head model and lead field and data analysis of a large resting-state EEG dataset, we show that electrode signals can be differentially affected by spatial mixing by computing a sensor complexity measure. While prominent occipital alpha rhythms result in less heterogeneous spatial mixing on posterior electrodes, central electrodes show a diversity of rhythms present. This makes the individual contributions, such as the sensorimotor mu-rhythm and temporal alpha rhythms, hard to disentangle from the dominant occipital alpha. Additionally, we show how strong occipital rhythms rhythms can contribute the majority of activity to frontal channels, potentially compromising analyses that are solely conducted in sensor space. We also outline specific consequences of signal mixing for frequently used assessment of power, power ratios and connectivity profiles in basic research and for neurofeedback application. With this work, we hope to illustrate the effects of volume conduction in a concrete way, such that the provided practical illustrations may be of use to EEG researchers to in order to evaluate whether sensor space is an appropriate choice for their topic of investigation.