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Papers of the Week

Papers: 20 May 2023 - 26 May 2023

Clinical, Psychology

Human Studies, Neurobiology, Neuromodulation


2023 May 05



Non-invasive neuromodulation of sub-regions of the human insula differentially affect pain processing and heart-rate variability.


Legon W, Strohman A, In A, Stebbins K, Payne B


The insula is a portion of the cerebral cortex folded deep within the lateral sulcus covered by the overlying opercula of the inferior frontal lobe and superior portion of the temporal lobe. The insula has been parsed into sub-regions based upon cytoarchitectonics and structural and functional connectivity with multiple lines of evidence supporting specific roles for each of these sub-regions in pain processing and interoception. In the past, causal interrogation of the insula was only possible in patients with surgically implanted electrodes. Here, we leverage the high spatial resolution combined with the deep penetration depth of low-intensity focused ultrasound (LIFU) to non-surgically modulate either the anterior insula (AI) or posterior insula (PI) in humans for effect on subjective pain ratings, electroencephalographic (EEG) contact head evoked potentials (CHEPs) and time-frequency power as well as autonomic measures including heart-rate variability (HRV) and electrodermal response (EDR). N = 23 healthy volunteers received brief noxious heat pain stimuli to the dorsum of their right hand during continuous heart-rate, EDR and EEG recording. LIFU was delivered to either the AI (anterior short gyrus), PI (posterior longus gyrus) or under an inert sham condition time-locked to the heat stimulus. Results demonstrate that single-element 500 kHz LIFU is capable of individually targeting specific gyri of the insula. LIFU to both AI and PI similarly reduced perceived pain ratings but had differential effects on EEG activity. LIFU to PI affected earlier EEG amplitudes around 300 milliseconds whereas LIFU to AI affected EEG amplitudes around 500 milliseconds. In addition, only LIFU to the AI affected HRV as indexed by an increase in standard deviation of N-N intervals (SDNN) and mean HRV low frequency power. There was no effect of LIFU to either AI or PI on EDR or blood pressure. Taken together, LIFU looks to be an effective method to individually target sub-regions of the insula in humans for site-specific effects on brain biomarkers of pain processing and autonomic reactivity that translates to reduced perceived pain to a transient heat stimulus. These data have implications for the treatment of chronic pain and several neuropsychological diseases like anxiety, depression and addiction that all demonstrate abnormal activity in the insula concomitant with dysregulated autonomic function.