Neural activity of the anterior insula in emotional processing depends on the individuals' emotional susceptibility.
Iaria G., Committeri G., Pastorelli C., Pizzamiglio L., Watkins KE., Carota A.
Differences in personality factors between individuals may manifest themselves with different patterns of neural activity while individuals process stimuli with emotional content. We attempted to verify this hypothesis by investigating emotional susceptibility (ES), a specific emotional trait of the human personality defined as the tendency to "experience feelings of discomfort, helplessness, inadequacy and vulnerability" after exposure to stimuli with emotional valence. By administering a questionnaire evaluating the individuals' ES, we selected two groups of participants with high and low ES respectively. Then, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate differences between the groups in the neural activity involved while they were processing emotional stimuli in an explicit (focusing on the content of the stimuli) or an incidental (focusing on spatial features of the stimuli, irrespectively of their content) way. The results showed a selective difference in brain activity between groups only in the explicit processing of the emotional stimuli: bilateral activity of the anterior insula was present in subjects with high ES but not in subjects with low ES. This difference in neural activity within the anterior insula proved to be purely functional since no brain morphological differences were found between groups, as assessed by a voxel-based morphometry analysis. Although the role of the anterior insula in the processing of contexts perceived as emotionally salient is well established, the present study provides the first evidence of a modulation of the insular activity depending on the individuals' ES trait of personality.