Pain and emotion in the insular cortex: evidence for functional reorganization in major depression

Neurosci Lett. 2012 Jun 29;520(2):204-9. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2012.03.095. Epub 2012 Apr 6.


Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is among the top causes of disability worldwide and many patients with depression experience pain symptoms. Little is known regarding what makes depressed persons feel like they are in pain. An increasing number of neuroimaging studies show that both physical pain and depression involve the insular cortex. The present study aimed to investigate whether emotional processing in MDD patients is topologically shifted towards the insular area(s) involved in pain processing in healthy individuals. To achieve this aim, we investigated the functional organization of the insula by conducting meta-analyses of previously published neuroimaging studies on: (1) emotion in patients with MDD, (2) emotion in healthy subjects, and (3) physical pain in healthy subjects. Our results show that the dorsal part of the insula is reproducibly activated during experimental pain in healthy individuals, with multiple separate pain-related areas aligned along its dorsal border. Regions with maximal pain-related activation likelihood estimate (ALE) were located in the posterior (left) and dorsal mid-anterior insula (left and right). Furthermore, emotion-related peaks in healthy subjects were found both in its ventral (as shown in a previous meta-analysis) and dorsal anterior part. Importantly, emotion-related peaks in depressed patients were shifted to the dorsal anterior insula, where regions related to physical pain in healthy subjects are located. This shift was reflected in the observation that median z-coordinates of emotion-related responses in the left hemisphere were significantly larger in depressed patients than in healthy controls. This shift of emotion-related responses to the dorsal insula, i.e., where pain-processing takes place in healthy subjects, may play a role in "emotional allodynia" - a notion that individuals with MDD experience pain in response to stimuli that are normally not painful.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / physiopathology*
  • Emotions*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Pain / psychology*