Abstract Event-related desynchronization (ERD) was studied in 10 young (mean age = 19.1) and 10 older (mean age = 62.8) subjects during a verbal recognition task. The attention load of the task varied according to the difficulty of discriminating between targets and distractors. EEG recorded from 29 electrodes was used to compute ERD from 14 source derivations in 125 ms intervals. Thereafter, it was displayed as spatiotemporal maps. The results show that attention influences the characteristics of EEG desynchronization. In young subjects, ERD is more pronounced and more widespread when the attentional load is high. In the elderly, differences between the two attention conditions are less marked. ANOVA reveals main effects of attention and time. The significant ‘attention × time × age group’ interaction confirms the presence of different brain activation patterns in the two age groups in relation to attention load.