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

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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.

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