The insula is a brain structure implicated in disparate cognitive, affective, and regulatory functions, including interoceptive awareness, emotional responses, and empathic processes. While classically considered a limbic region, recent evidence from network analysis suggests a critical role for the insula, particularly the anterior division, in high-level cognitive control and attentional processes. The crucial insight and view we present here is of the anterior insula as an integral hub in mediating dynamic interactions between other large-scale brain networks involved in externally oriented attention and internally oriented or self-related cognition. The model we present postulates that the insula is sensitive to salient events, and that its core function is to mark such events for additional processing and initiate appropriate control signals. The anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex form a "salience network" that functions to segregate the most relevant among internal and extrapersonal stimuli in order to guide behavior. Within the framework of our network model, the disparate functions ascribed to the insula can be conceptualized by a few basic mechanisms: (1) bottom-up detection of salient events, (2) switching between other large-scale networks to facilitate access to attention and working memory resources when a salient event is detected, (3) interaction of the anterior and posterior insula to modulate autonomic reactivity to salient stimuli, and (4) strong functional coupling with the anterior cingulate cortex that facilitates rapid access to the motor system. In this manner, with the insula as its integral hub, the salience network assists target brain regions in the generation of appropriate behavioral responses to salient stimuli. We suggest that this framework provides a parsimonious account of insula function in neurotypical adults, and may provide novel insights into the neural basis of disorders of affective and social cognition.
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