Date of Award

Fall 2021

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Robert S Ross

Second Advisor

Laura Allen

Third Advisor

Ronald Croce


Cognitive flexibility is an important mental faculty, but there are certain populations that experience reduced flexibility, which may be associated with altered neural activity. Rumination is when an individual becomes mentally stuck on a thought, and they experience difficulty shifting their attention away from the ruminative thought demonstrating reduced cognitive flexibility. In a similar manner, individuals diagnosed with substance use disorder show varying degrees of attentional bias towards drug related stimuli. The drug cues capture attention, and it is difficult for these individuals to shift attention away from thoughts related to drug cues. Both populations experience difficulty shifting attention when they experience highly salient thoughts (high automatic constraints). Here we suggest and demonstrate that reduced cognitive flexibility in these populations is associated with altered activity of alpha oscillations, as alpha oscillations play an important role in supporting cognitive flexibility. In our first study, we assess the relationship between trait tendency to ruminate and resting state alpha power in left frontal and parietal located electrodes. Individuals higher in trait rumination exhibit higher alpha power in left frontal located electrodes. This finding suggests that higher alpha power may contribute to mental inflexibility associated with rumination. In our second study, we assess the relationship between attentional bias towards drug cues and alpha power while automatic constraints on thought are high during an emotional version of the Stroop task and when drug cues are not present and therefore automatic constraints are low, but flexibility is required during a probabilistic reversal learning task. The emotional version of the Stroop task includes traditional congruent and incongruent word meanings as well as drug related and neutral word meanings. Participants in this study were long-term nicotine smokers, therefore the emotional stimuli were smoking related. The probabilistic reversal learning task instructs participants to choose one of two presented stimuli on each trial. The stimuli have different probabilities of reward or punishment. If the participant chooses the stimulus with the higher probability of reward several trials in a row, the reward probabilities reverse, and the participant must adapt to the new reward contingencies. Participants demonstrate the traditional Stroop effect of lower accuracy and slower reaction time during incongruent trials compared to congruent trials. Additionally, participants show a slowed reaction time during drug trials compared to neutral trials suggesting attentional bias during drug trials. Greater attentional bias is associated with higher alpha power in left frontal electrodes during drug trials. No significant relationship between attentional bias and alpha power during the probabilistic reversal learning task was revealed. Together, these results suggest higher alpha power in left frontal regions may contribute to mental inflexibility prompted by attentional bias when automatic constraints are high, but when automatic constraints are low, flexibility may not be reduced. All together these results reveal a relationship between reduced cognitive flexibility when salient stimuli or thoughts are present and altered alpha power dynamics, which may offer new avenues for behavioral intervention to improve cognitive flexibility.