Podcast Review: What Does the Insular Cortex Do Again?

In the 16.10.08 edition of the nature podcast there is a discussion of the beginning of the Human Genome Project which which was initiated by the Department of Energy following the end of WWII when nuclear weapons were used. In order to identify if mutations were passed onto subsequent generations, a standardised genome was needed for comparison.

In the 24.10.08 edition of the science podcast there is an interview with Lawrence Williams who has just published some research on the relationship between physical temperature and psychological perceptions of relationships. This type of research has been carried out previously. In this experiment subjects perceived another (fictitious) person as warm if they were holding a hot drink or cold if they were holding a cold drink. If they were choosing gifts they were more likely to choose for others if they had felt a hot pad rather than for themselves (which was more likely if they felt a cold pad).

Lawrence Williams then goes on to discuss the possible role of the insular cortex as it is implicated in processing emotional information and also integrating sensory information bringing an almost immediate analogy to the findings above. The insular cortex which is located deeper in the brain than most parts of the cortex has been emerging as an area of particular interest in neuroscience research recently. A number of studies on the insular cortex have been covered on this blog previously. Thus binding of flumazenil to GABA receptors in the Insular Cortex was reduced in the brains of people who have panic attacks. Another study found that people with borderline personality disorder had reduced activity in the anterior insular region and had less reciprocal behaviour in social games.

The idea that the insular cortex is involved in sophisticated emotional processing has been gaining ground. Being so deep within the brain, the insula ‘faces’ the Putamen although it is from the Thalamus that it receives many connections. Perhaps its worth speculating at this point. What if the insular cortex was like an emotional thermostat – turning the emotions up or down so that in those with panic attacks the emotional perception is large and in people with emotional processing difficulties it has been turned down. GABA receptors could serve as the thermostat switch and would have an element of heritability – the more GABA receptors there were in the insular cortex – the less intense would be the emotional experiences (depending also on saturation). The division of the insular cortex into anterior and posterior parts with different functions would also mean that sensory information would create an artefact in the emotional processing and this would therefore not just apply to processing of hot and cold temperatures but indeed any type of sensory information that is processed in the insular cortex. However this concept of an artefact is less appealing than the idea that integrating how our body is responding autonomically – instinctively – should be combined with the focus of our conscious attention at a given time. This in turn, is consistent with Pavlovian conditioning. However this is speculation. Developments in this field should be interesting to follow however.


The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


    • Dear Finiavaindine,

      Many thanks. What in particular did you find appealing about this post?




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