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What is the Insula?

By Meshell Powell
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The insula is another name given to the area of the brain known as the insular cortex, the tissue surrounding the largest portion of the brain. Other names for this structure include insular lobe or insulary cortex. The insula is part of the cerebral cortex and helps to regulate emotion and works to assist in motor control function.

The insula has been clinically divided into two separate sections, anterior and posterior. Each of these sections is responsible for a diverse number of functions within the human body. The body's ability to maintain a constant temperature, a state known has homeostasis, is linked to this area of the brain. Perception and self-awareness are also linked to the insula. Other functions influenced by the insula include cognitive function as well as motor control.

Body functions known as interoceptive awareness is regulated by the insula. Some of these functions include the timing of a person's heartbeat as well as blood pressure control. The perception of pain is controlled to a limited degree by the insula, as is the feeling of having a full bladder. Certain perceptions also fall into the interoceptive awareness category, including feelings of empathy and the ability to passively listen to music.

Some motor skills are partially controlled by the insula as well. Speech and the ability to swallow are among these functions. This area of the brain has also been proven to assist in the recovery of motor skills following a traumatic event such as a stroke.

Some social emotions have been found to be profoundly influenced by the insula. These include feelings of disgust when witnessing violent scenes or smelling something that one deems foul. These emotions can also be triggered merely by the act of imagining such distasteful situations.

The insula can be negatively affected by a variety of diseases and disorders, such as Huntington’s disease. This area of the brain is widely believed to play a role in the presence of anxiety disorders as well as in the inability to regulate emotions. Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia often affect this area of the brain as well. This is due to a condition known as hypometabolism, which is a decrease in the metabolic rate, or the amount of energy the body uses while at rest. Traumatic brain injuries as well as other diseases or medical conditions can also have an adverse effect on this area of the brain, requiring medical supervision and treatment.

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Discussion Comments

By wavy58 — On Jul 28, 2011

My great-grandmother suffered from insula damage in the form of dementia. Thankfully, she lived a normal life until the old age of 93, when the condition set in and life changed dramatically for both her and my grandmother, who had to take care of her.

It was sad watching her lose her ability to speak. She had been quite the conversationalist, yet suddenly, she started having trouble finding and forming her words.

Also, she could not control her mood or her behavior. Her insula could not tell her how she should react or feel anymore. She was at a loss for emotional guidance without it.

By kylee07drg — On Jul 27, 2011

@StarJo - I also have a friend who has Huntington’s. In addition to the symptoms that you mentioned, damage to her insula has caused a few others.

She jerks involuntarily and writhes around. Sometimes, her muscles contract for a period of time. They become rigid. Her eyes dart about abnormally, and her movements are uncoordinated. She has problems with balance and walking.

Brain damage also makes it hard for her to speak correctly. She even has trouble swallowing.

We never think about what all the insula takes care of on a daily basis for us. With an impaired insula, life becomes nearly unbearable.

By StarJo — On Jul 27, 2011

I have a friend who was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. At first, she didn’t show any symptoms. She just got checked because the disease killed her mother at the age that she is now.

The disease has now damaged her insula. She has trouble not only with knowing what is normally disgusting but also with recognizing looks of disgust on the faces of others. Her doctor said a clinical study revealed that Huntington’s has had this effect on many patients’ insulas.

Further damage to her insula has caused her to act on impulse. She frequently has outbursts of emotion and acts without thinking.

By Oceana — On Jul 26, 2011

The insula sounds like an extremely central area of the brain. I can’t imagine suffering damage to a region that controls not only empathy and emotional reaction but also your very heartbeat!

It makes sense that anxiety disorders have their origin in the insula. If your perception of yourself and your ability to form emotions are impaired, then of course you will suffer anxiety. You will probably be scared because you can’t feel like you know that you should.

Even speaking and swallowing could be negatively affected by damage to this area! It seems that a person with a damaged insula would not have much of themselves left.

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