The insular cortex (IC), which lies on the dorsal bank of the rhinal fissure, receives multi-modal sensory inputs, i.e. visceral, gustatory, nociceptive and thermal information from the sensory thalamic nuclei. In contrast to other primary sensory cortices such as visual, auditory and somatosensory areas, the anatomical features of the IC are quite distinctive; more than a half of the IC is composed of agranular or dysgranular cortex, which lacks a complete granular layer (layer IV). In addition to the characteristic layer structures, the IC has dense reciprocal innervations with the limbic structures, including the amygdala and hypothalamus. Such connectivity implies that sensory information processed in the IC is profoundly related to limbic information. By enabling the visualization of functional connectivity in the central nervous system, recent advancements in optical imaging techniques have opened the possibility to elucidate the mechanisms of sensory information processing from a macroscopic perspective. In this review, anatomical and functional features of the IC are overviewed from the aspect of gustatory processing, a typical sensation processed in the IC. In addition, the recently developed optical imaging techniques and their findings in gustatory information processing are summarized. We discuss how these characteristic features of excitatory propagation in the IC play functional roles in transmitting neural excitation arising from the limbic structures to the frontal and orbital cortices.
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