It has been assumed that the effective encoding of information into memory primarily depends on neural activity elicited when an event is initially encountered. Recently, it has been shown that memory formation also relies on neural activity just before an event. The precise role of such activity in memory is currently unknown. Here, we address whether prestimulus activity affects the encoding of auditory and visual events, is set up on a trial-by-trial basis, and varies as a function of the type of recognition judgment an item later receives. Electrical brain activity was recorded from the scalps of 24 healthy young adults while they made semantic judgments on randomly intermixed series of visual and auditory words. Each word was preceded by a cue signaling the modality of the upcoming word. Auditory words were preceded by auditory cues and visual words by visual cues. A recognition memory test with remember/know judgments followed after a delay of about 45 min. As observed previously, a negative-going, frontally distributed modulation just before visual word onset predicted later recollection of the word. Crucially, the same effect was found for auditory words and observed on stay as well as switch trials. These findings emphasize the flexibility and general role of prestimulus activity in memory formation, and support a functional interpretation of the activity in terms of semantic preparation. At least with an unpredictable trial sequence, the activity is set up anew on each trial.

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