Self-regulation of anterior insula with real-time fMRI and its behavioral effects in obsessive-compulsive disorder: A feasibility study

Korhan Buyukturkoglu, Hans Roettgers, Jens Sommer, Mohit Rana, Leonie Dietzsch, Ezgi Belkis Arikan, Ralf Veit, Rahim Malekshahi, Tilo Kircher, Niels Birbaumer, Ranganatha Sitaram, Sergio Ruiz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Introduction Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common and chronic condition that can have disabling effects throughout the patient's lifespan. Frequent symptoms among OCD patients include fear of contamination and washing compulsions. Several studies have shown a link between contamination fears, disgust over-reactivity, and insula activation in OCD. In concordance with the role of insula in disgust processing, new neural models based on neuroimaging studies suggest that abnormally high activations of insula could be implicated in OCD psychopathology, at least in the subgroup of patients with contamination fears and washing compulsions. Methods In the current study, we used a Brain Computer Interface (BCI) based on real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging (rtfMRI) to aid OCD patients to achieve down-regulation of the Blood Oxygenation Level Dependent (BOLD) signal in anterior insula. Our first aim was to investigate whether patients with contamination obsessions and washing compulsions can learn to volitionally decrease (down-regulate) activity in the insula in the presence of disgust/anxiety provoking stimuli. Our second aim was to evaluate the effect of down-regulation on clinical, behavioural and physiological changes pertaining to OCD symptoms. Hence, several pre- and post-training measures were performed, i.e., confronting the patient with a disgust/anxiety inducing real-world object (Ecological Disgust Test), and subjective rating and physiological responses (heart rate, skin conductance level) of disgust towards provoking pictures. Results Results of this pilot study, performed in 3 patients (2 females), show that OCD patients can gain self-control of the BOLD activity of insula, albeit to different degrees. In two patients positive changes in behaviour in the EDT were observed following the rtfMRI trainings. Behavioural changes were also confirmed by reductions in the negative valence and in the subjective perception of disgust towards symptom provoking images. Conclusion Although preliminary, results of this study confirmed that insula down-regulation is possible in patients suffering from OCD, and that volitional decreases of insula activation could be used for symptom alleviation in this disorder.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0135872
JournalPLoS One
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Aug 24 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Medicine(all)


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