The insular cortex: a review

Prog Brain Res. 2012;195:123-63. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-53860-4.00007-6.


The human insular cortex forms a distinct, but entirely hidden lobe, situated in the depth of the Sylvian fissure. Here, we first review the recent literature on the connectivity and the functions of this structure. It appears that this small lobe, taking up less than 2% of the total cortical surface area, receives afferents from some sensory thalamic nuclei, is (mostly reciprocally) connected with the amygdala and with many limbic and association cortical areas, and is implicated in an astonishingly large number of widely different functions, ranging from pain perception and speech production to the processing of social emotions. Next, we embark on a long, adventurous journey through the voluminous literature on the structural organization of the insular cortex. This journey yielded the following take-home messages: (1) The meticulous, but mostly neglected publications of Rose (1928) and Brockhaus (1940) are still invaluable for our understanding of the architecture of the mammalian insular cortex. (2) The relation of the insular cortex to the adjacent claustrum is neither ontogenetical nor functional, but purely topographical. (3) The insular cortex has passed through a spectacular progressive differentiation during hominoid evolution, but the assumption of Craig (2009) that the human anterior insula has no homologue in the rhesus monkey is untenable. (4) The concept of Mesulam and Mufson (1985), that the primate insula is essentially composed of three concentrically arranged zones, agranular, dysgranular, and granular, is presumably correct, but there is at present much confusion concerning the more detailed architecture of the anterior insular cortex. (5) The large spindle-shaped cells in the fifth layer of the insular cortex, currently known as von Economo neurons (VENs), are not only confined to large-brained mammals, such as whales, elephants, apes, and humans, but also occur in monkeys and prosimians, as well as in the pygmy hippopotamus, the Atlantic walrus, and Florida manatee. Finally, we point out that the human insula presents a unique opportunity for performing an in-depth comparative analysis of the relations between structure and function in a typical sensory and a typical cognitive cortical domain.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cerebral Cortex / anatomy & histology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways / anatomy & histology
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / metabolism