Regions of the brain activated in bladder filling vs rectal distention in healthy adults: A meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies

Neurourol Urodyn. 2020 Jan;39(1):58-65. doi: 10.1002/nau.24221. Epub 2019 Dec 9.


Aims: Adults with pelvic floor disorders commonly present with overlapping bladder and bowel symptoms; however, the relationship between urinary and defecatory dysfunction is not well understood. Our aim was to compare and determine if overlapping brain regions are activated during bladder filling and rectal distention in healthy adults.

Methods: We conducted separate Pubmed searches for neuroimaging studies investigating the effects of rectal distention and bladder filling on brain activation in healthy subjects. Coordinates of activated regions were extracted with cluster-level threshold P < .05 and compared using the activation likelihood estimate approach. Results from the various studies were pooled and a contrast analysis was performed to identify any common areas of activation between bladder filling and rectal distension.

Results: We identified 96 foci of activation from 14 neuroimaging studies on bladder filling and 182 foci from 17 studies on rectal distension in healthy adults. Regions activated during bladder filling included right insula, right and left thalamus, and right periaqueductal grey. Regions activated during rectal distention included right and left insula, right and left thalamus, left postcentral gyrus, and right inferior parietal lobule. Contrast analysis revealed common activation of the right insula with both rectal distention and bladder filling.

Conclusion: Bladder filling and rectal distention activate several separate areas of the brain involved in sensory processing in healthy adults. The common activation of the insula, the region responsible for interoception, in these two conditions may offer an explanation for the coexistence of bladder and defecatory symptoms in pelvic floor disorders.

Keywords: bladder filling; insula; interoception; neuroimaging; pelvic floor disorders; rectal distention.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Defecation / physiology*
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Neuroimaging
  • Rectum / physiology*
  • Urinary Bladder / physiology*
  • Urodynamics