Lieing between the temporal and parietal lobes of the brain, the insular cortex (also known as the insula) is part of the cerebral cortex. It was first described by Johann-Christian Reil (1759 – 1813) in 1796 and later became known as the Island of Reil (Binder, Schaller, & Clusmann, 2007).

The insula plays a role in functions linked to emotion and to regulation of the body’s homeostasis (balance). The insula is thought to contain representations of external sensory and internal bodily states, incorporating information from visceral (guts), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), visual, auditory, and somatosensory (feeling) inputs (Beauregard, 2003). The insula is active in perception, motor control, and self-awareness.

Neuroimaging studies—such as functional magnetic resonance imaging and positive emission tomography scans—have yielded insight into the role of the insula. Research has implicated the insula specifically in the emotion of disgust. However, the insula is also activated with other basic emotions such as happinessOpens in new window, sadnessOpens in new window, and fearOpens in new window. It can be activated by emotional recall as well as real-time experiencing of emotion.

The insula is involved in the experiencing of social emotions, including admiration of virtue, feelings of compassion for social or psychological pain, and moral indignation.

Anxiety-prone research participants had greater insula activation when shown pictures of emotional faces than did participants with lower anxiety (Stein, Simmons, Feinstein, & Paulus, 2007). The insula is activated during tic initiation in individuals with Tourette’s syndrome (Lerner et al., 2009).

The insula has been implicated in conscious urges and addiction, showing activation during drug cravings and exposure to cues associated with drugs of abuse (e.g., cocaine, nicotine).

In one study, damage to the insula was found to disrupt addiction to cigarette smoking. Research participants were smokers who had smoked at least five cigarettes a day for at least two years before the onset of an acquired brain injury (e.g., stroke).

Those who had damage to the insula were more likely to quit smoking easily, immediately, without relapse, and without the urge to smoke (Naqvi, Rudrauf, Damasio, & Bechara, 2007).

See also:
  1. Beauregard, M. (2003). Consciousness, emotional self-regulation and the brain. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  2. Binder, D.K., Schaller, K., & Clusmann, H. (2007). The seminal contribution of Johan-Christian Reil to anatomy, physiology, and psychiatry. Neurosurgery, 61, 1091 – 1096.
  3. Immordino-Yang, M.H., McColl, A., Damasio, H., & Damasio, A. (2009). Neural correlates of admiration and compassion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United Staes of America, 106, 8021 – 8026.
  4. Lerner, A., Bagic, A., Hanakawa, T., Boudreau, E.A., Pagan, F., Mari, Z., et al. (2009). Involvement of insula and cingulated cortices in control and suppression of natural urges. Cerebral Cortex, 19, 218 – 223.
  5. Naqvi, N.H., Rudrauf, D., Damasio, H., & Bechara, A. (2007). Damage to the insula disrupts addiction to cigarette smoking. Science, 315, 534.
  6. Stein, M.B., Simmons, A.N., Feinstein, J. S.,& Paulus, M.P. (2007). Increased amygdale and insula activation during emotion processing in anxiety-prone subjects. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164, 318 – 327.