Measuring mental workload with EEG+fNIRS

Haleh Aghajani, Marc Garbey, Ahmet Omurtag

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

149 Scopus citations


We studied the capability of a Hybrid functional neuroimaging technique to quantify human mental workload (MWL). We have used electroencephalography (EEG) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) as imaging modalities with 17 healthy subjects performing the letter n-back task, a standard experimental paradigm related to working memory (WM). The level of MWL was parametrically changed by variation of n from 0 to 3. Nineteen EEG channels were covering the whole-head and 19 fNIRS channels were located on the forehead to cover the most dominant brain region involved in WM. Grand block averaging of recorded signals revealed specific behaviors of oxygenated-hemoglobin level during changes in the level of MWL. A machine learning approach has been utilized for detection of the level of MWL. We extracted different features from EEG, fNIRS, and EEG+fNIRS signals as the biomarkers of MWL and fed them to a linear support vector machine (SVM) as train and test sets. These features were selected based on their sensitivity to the changes in the level of MWL according to the literature. We introduced a new category of features within fNIRS and EEG+fNIRS systems. In addition, the performance level of each feature category was systematically assessed. We also assessed the effect of number of features and window size in classification performance. SVM classifier used in order to discriminate between different combinations of cognitive states from binary- and multi-class states. In addition to the cross-validated performance level of the classifier other metrics such as sensitivity, specificity, and predictive values were calculated for a comprehensive assessment of the classification system. The Hybrid (EEG+fNIRS) system had an accuracy that was significantly higher than that of either EEG or fNIRS. Our results suggest that EEG+fNIRS features combined with a classifier are capable of robustly discriminating among various levels of MWL. Results suggest that EEG+fNIRS should be preferred to only EEG or fNIRS, in developing passive BCIs and other applications which need to monitor users’ MWL.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number359
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
StatePublished - Jul 14 2017


  • Cognitive state monitoring
  • Electroencephalography (EEG)
  • Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS)
  • Human mental workload
  • Machine learning
  • Multi-modal brain recording
  • N-back

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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