Using real-time fmri to learn voluntary regulation of the anterior insula in the presence of threat-related stimuli

Ralf Veit, Vanessa Singh, Ranganatha Sitaram, Andrea Caria, Karsten Rauss, Niels Birbaumer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Previous studies have shown that healthy participants learn to control local brain activity with operant training by using real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging (rt-fMRI). Very little data exist, however, on the dynamics of interaction between critical brain regions during rt-fMRI-based training. Here, we examined self-regulation of stimulus-elicited insula activation and performed a psychophysiological interaction (PPI) analysis of real-time self-regulation data. During voluntary up-regulation of the left anterior insula in the presence of threat-related pictures, differential activations were observed in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, the frontal operculum, the middle cingulate cortex and the right insula. Down-regulation in comparison to no-regulation revealed additional activations in right superior temporal cortex, right inferior parietal cortex and right middle frontal cortex. There was a significant learning effect over sessions during up-regulation, documented by a significant improvement of anterior insula control over time. Connectivity analysis revealed that successful up-regulation of the activity in left anterior insula while viewing aversive pictures was directly modulated by dorsomedial and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. Down-regulation of activity was more difficult to achieve and no learning effect was observed. More extensive training might be necessary for successful down-regulation. These findings illustrate the functional interactions between different brain areas during regulation of anterior insula activity in the presence of threat-related stimuli.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbernsr061
Pages (from-to)623-634
Number of pages12
JournalSocial Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2012


  • Emotion
  • Insula
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Psychophysiological interaction
  • Real-time fMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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