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Neural systems supporting interoceptive awareness

Abstract

Influential theories of human emotion argue that subjective feeling states involve representation of bodily responses elicited by emotional events. Within this framework, individual differences in intensity of emotional experience reflect variation in sensitivity to internal bodily responses. We measured regional brain activity by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during an interoceptive task wherein subjects judged the timing of their own heartbeats. We observed enhanced activity in insula, somatomotor and cingulate cortices. In right anterior insular/opercular cortex, neural activity predicted subjects' accuracy in the heartbeat detection task. Furthermore, local gray matter volume in the same region correlated with both interoceptive accuracy and subjective ratings of visceral awareness. Indices of negative emotional experience correlated with interoceptive accuracy across subjects. These findings indicate that right anterior insula supports a representation of visceral responses accessible to awareness, providing a substrate for subjective feeling states.

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Figure 1: Task design.
Figure 2: Activity relating to interoceptive attention (second-level random effects analysis of 17 subjects, P < 0.02 corrected).
Figure 3: Functional neural correlates of interoceptive sensitivity.
Figure 4: Morphometric (gray matter) correlates of interoceptive sensitivity.
Figure 5: Gray matter correlates of measures of self-rated bodily awareness.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by a Wellcome Clinician Scientist Fellowship to H.D.C. and a Programme Grant to R.J.D.

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Correspondence to Hugo D Critchley.

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Critchley, H., Wiens, S., Rotshtein, P. et al. Neural systems supporting interoceptive awareness. Nat Neurosci 7, 189–195 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn1176

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