Spatial segregation of somato-sensory and pain activations in the human operculo-insular cortex

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The role of operculo-insular region in the processing of somato-sensory inputs, painful or not, is now well established. However, available maps from previous literature show a substantial overlap of cortical areas activated by these stimuli, and the region referred to as the “secondary somatosensory area (SII)” is widely distributed in the parietal operculum. Differentiating SII from posterior insula cortex, which is anatomically contiguous, is not easy, explaining why the “operculo-insular” label has been introduced to describe activations by somatosensory stimuli in this cortical region. Based on the recent cyto-architectural parcellation of the human insular/SII cortices (Eickhoff et al., 2006, Kurth et al., 2010), the present study investigates with functional MRI (fMRI), whether these structural subdivisions could subserve distinct aspects of discriminative somato-sensory functions, including pain. Responses to five types of stimuli applied on the left hand of 25 healthy volunteers were considered: i) tactile stimuli; ii) passive movements; iii) innocuous cold stimuli; iv) non-noxious warm and v) heat pain.

Our results show different patterns of activation depending on the type of somato-sensory stimulation. The posterior part of SII (OP1 area), contralateral to stimuli, was the only sub-region activated by all type of stimuli and might therefore be considered as a common cortical target for different types of somato-sensory inputs. Proprioceptive stimulation by passive finger movements activated the posterior part of SII (OP1 sub-region) bilaterally and the contralateral median part of insula (PreCG and MSG). Innocuous cooling activated the contralateral posterior part of SII (OP1) and the dorsal posterior and median part of insula (OP2, PostCG). Pain stimuli induced the most widespread and intense activation that was bilateral in SII (OP1, OP4) and distributed to all sub-regions of contralateral insula (except OP2) and to the anterior part of the ipsilateral insula (PreCG, MSG, ASG). However, the posterior granular part of insula contralateral to stimulus (Ig area) and the anterior part of SII bilaterally (OP4) were specifically activated during pain stimulation. This raises the question whether these latter areas could be the anatomical substrate of the sensory-discriminative processing of thermal pain.


□ Five different somatosensory stimuli were applied on the left hand of 25 volunteers. □ fMRI activations were described in the operculo-insular (OI) cortex. □ Somato-sensory functions were consistent with structural subdivisions. □ Each type of stimuli evoked a specific co-activation of several sub-regions. □ Spatial segregation of somatosensory and pain activations were found in the OI cortex.

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