The association of interoceptive awareness and alexithymia with neurotransmitter concentrations in insula and anterior cingulate

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2014 Jun;9(6):857-63. doi: 10.1093/scan/nst058. Epub 2013 Apr 16.


Alexithymia and increased interoceptive awareness have been associated with affective disorders as well as with altered insula and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) function. Brain imaging studies have demonstrated an association between neurotransmitter function and affective disorders as well as personality traits. Here, we first examined the relationship between alexithymic facets as assessed with the Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20) and interoceptive awareness (assessed with the Body Perception Questionnaire) in 18 healthy subjects. Second, we investigated their association with glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) concentrations in the left insula and the ACC using 3-Tesla proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Behaviorally, we found a close association between alexithymia and interoceptive awareness. Furthermore, glutamate levels in the left insula were positively associated with both alexithymia and awareness of autonomic nervous system reactivity, while GABA concentrations in ACC were selectively associated with alexithymia. Although preliminary, our results suggest that increased glutamate-mediated excitatory transmission-related to enhanced insula activity-reflects increased interoceptive awareness in alexithymia. Suppression of the unspecific emotional arousal evoked by increased awareness of bodily responses in alexithymics might thus be reflected in decreased neuronal activity mediated by increased GABA concentration in ACC.

Keywords: alexithymia; interoceptive awareness; neurotransmitter; proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affective Symptoms / metabolism*
  • Cerebral Cortex / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism*
  • Gyrus Cinguli / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Personality / physiology
  • Proton Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy
  • Self-Assessment*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / metabolism*


  • Glutamic Acid
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid