Interoception Research

Introduction and Explanation of Need

Interoception refers to the representation of the internal world of an organism and includes the processes by which the organism senses, interprets, integrates, and regulates signals from within itself. Here, the action of “sensing” denotes communication from other physiological systems to the central nervous system (CNS) through the commonly called ascending pathways, while the action of “regulating” refers to communication from the brain to other physiological systems via descending pathways. The CNS, especially the brain, is primarily responsible for interpreting and integrating these signals into a representation of the internal world. It is important to clarify that the bidirectional communications between other physiological systems and the CNS can be carried through either the peripheral neural pathways or nonneuronal pathways, such as the vascular or lymphatic systems and humoral system (e.g., immune and endocrine). Processes involved in interoception could often serve as therapeutic targets of many complementary and integrative health approaches, including psychological and physical approaches such as meditation, acupuncture, and other manual therapies, as well as nutritional approaches such as natural products.

Because of its potential importance, research on interoception in the context of complementary and integrative health approaches requires a deeper understanding of the connections between brain and body. In addition, tools and methods to probe interoceptive processes, especially in human subject research, are largely limited to self-reports and a handful of measures such as heart rate variability and skin conductance. An expansion of innovative and quantitative methods to study interoception may significantly enhance our understanding of how interoception works. These new tools and methods may also provide novel insights into how complementary and integrative health approaches may modulate the interoceptive processes and interoceptive clinical outcomes.

What Does Success Look Like?

  • Expanded understanding of the mechanisms underlying interoception.
  • Improved, innovative tools and methods to probe interoceptive processes, especially in human subjects.
  • Increased understanding of the impact of specific complementary and integrative health approaches on interoceptive processes.
  • Improved understanding of the efficacy and effectiveness of complementary and integrative health approaches on interoception-related clinical outcomes, especially those related to musculoskeletal and visceral pain.

Priorities

  • Build on basic interoceptive pathway studies to investigate mechanisms important for complementary and integrative approaches.
  • Expand mechanistic research on interoception involving pain, cardiovascular conditions, and digestive conditions.
  • Develop translational and clinical efficacy studies supporting development of new tools to probe interoception in humans and animal models.
  • Support natural product research related to interoception involving brain-gut interactions and brain-cardiovascular/immune and brain-endocrine pathways, including both neural and nonneural pathways.
  • Support mind and body research involving brain-respiratory (meditation), brain-musculoskeletal (acupuncture/manual therapy, movement-based therapies), brain-cardiovascular, brain-endocrine, and vagal/spinal pathways.