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A link between the systems: functional differentiation and integration within the human insula revealed by meta-analysis


Whether we feel sympathy for another, listen to our heartbeat, experience pain or negotiate, the insular cortex is thought to integrate perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and plans into one subjective image of “our world”. The insula has hence been ascribed an integrative role, linking information from diverse functional systems. Nevertheless, various anatomical and functional studies in humans and non-human primates also indicate a functional differentiation of this region. In order to investigate this functional differentiation as well as the mechanisms of the functional integration in the insula, we performed activation-likelihood-estimation (ALE) meta-analyses of 1,768 functional neuroimaging experiments. The analysis revealed four functionally distinct regions on the human insula, which map to the social-emotional, the sensorimotor, the olfacto-gustatory, and the cognitive network of the brain. Sensorimotor tasks activated the mid-posterior and social-emotional tasks the anterior-ventral insula. In the central insula activation by olfacto-gustatory stimuli was found, and cognitive tasks elicited activation in the anterior-dorsal region. A conjunction analysis across these domains revealed that aside from basic somatosensory and motor processes all tested functions overlapped on the anterior-dorsal insula. This overlap might constitute a correlate for a functional integration between different functional systems and thus reflect a link between them necessary to integrate different qualities into a coherent experience of the world and setting the context for thoughts and actions.

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This research was funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and the National Institute of Mental Health. K.Z. acknowledges further funding by the Helmholtz Alliance “Systembiologie” the “Human Brain Model”. A.R.L. and P.T.F. were supported by the Human Brain Project of the NIMH (R01-MH074457-01A1).

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Correspondence to Florian Kurth.

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Kurth, F., Zilles, K., Fox, P.T. et al. A link between the systems: functional differentiation and integration within the human insula revealed by meta-analysis. Brain Struct Funct 214, 519–534 (2010).

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  • Cognitive
  • Social-emotional
  • Sensory
  • BrainMap