How the heart speaks to the brain: Neural activity during cardiorespiratory interoceptive stimulation

Mahlega S. Hassanpour, Lirong Yan, Danny J.J. Wang, Rachel C. Lapidus, Armen C. Arevian, W. Kyle Simmons, Jamie D. Feusner, Sahib S. Khalsa*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Prominent theories emphasize key roles for the insular cortex in the central representation of interoceptive sensations, but how this brain region responds dynamically to changes in interoceptive state remains incompletely understood. Here, we systematically modulated cardiorespiratory sensations in humans using bolus infusions of isoproterenol, a rapidly acting peripheral beta-adrenergic agonist similar to adrenaline. To identify central neural processes underlying these parametrically modulated interoceptive states, we used pharmacological functional magnetic resonance imaging (phMRI) to simultaneously measure blood-oxygenation-level dependent (BOLD) and arterial spin labelling (ASL) signals in healthy participants. Isoproterenol infusions induced dose-dependent increases in heart rate and cardiorespiratory interoception, with all participants endorsing increased sensations at the highest dose. These reports were accompanied by increased BOLD and ASL activation of the right insular cortex at the highest dose. Different responses across insula subregions were also observed. During anticipation, insula activation increased in more anterior regions. During stimulation, activation increased in the mid-dorsal and posterior insula on the right, but decreased in the same regions on the left. This study demonstrates the feasibility of phMRI for assessing brain activation during adrenergic interoceptive stimulation, and provides further evidence supporting a dynamic role for the insula in representing changes in cardiorespiratory states. This article is part of the themed issue ‘Interoception beyond homeostasis: affect, cognition and mental health’.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20160017
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1708
StatePublished - Nov 19 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Cardiac
  • Emotion
  • Insula
  • Interoception
  • Pharmacological functional magnetic resonance imaging
  • Respiration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


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