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Neuroimage. 2019 Aug 7;202:116068. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.116068. [Epub ahead of print]

Thoughts of death affect reward learning by modulating salience network activity.

Author information

1
Department of Psychology, Guangdong Key Laboratory of Social Cognitive Neuroscience and Mental Health, Guangdong Provincial Key Laboratory of Brain Function and Disease, Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou, 510006, China. Electronic address: ljc520ida@163.com.
2
Department of Radiology, The 7th Medical Center of PLA General Hospital, Beijing, China.
3
School of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, PKU-IDG/McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Beijing Key Laboratory of Behavior and Mental Health, Peking University, Beijing, China.
4
Department of Psychology, Guangdong Key Laboratory of Social Cognitive Neuroscience and Mental Health, Guangdong Provincial Key Laboratory of Brain Function and Disease, Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou, 510006, China.
5
Department of Radiology, The 7th Medical Center of PLA General Hospital, Beijing, China. Electronic address: bei925@sina.com.
6
School of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, PKU-IDG/McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Beijing Key Laboratory of Behavior and Mental Health, Peking University, Beijing, China. Electronic address: shan@pku.edu.cn.

Abstract

Thoughts of death substantially influence human behavior and psychological well-being. A large number of behavioral studies have shown evidence that asking individuals to think about death or mortality salience leads to significant changes of their behaviors. These findings support the well-known terror management theory to account for the psychological mechanisms of existential anxiety. However, despite increasing findings of mortality salience effects on human behavior, how the brain responds to reminders of mortality and changes the activity underlying subsequent behavior remains poorly understood. By scanning healthy adults (N = 80) of both sexes using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we showed that, relative to reading emotionally neutral sentences, reading sentences that evoke death-related thoughts decreased the salience network activity, reduced the connectivity between the cingulate cortex and other brain regions during a subsequent resting state, and dampened the speed of learning reward-related objects and cingulate responses to loss feedback during a subsequent reward learning task. In addition, the decreased resting-state cingulate connectivity mediated the association between salience network deactivations in response to reminders of mortality and suppressed cingulate responses to loss feedback. Finally, the suppressed cingulate responses to loss feedback further predicted the dampened speed of reward learning. Our findings demonstrate sequential modulations of the salience network activity by mortality salience, which provide a neural basis for understanding human behavior under mortality threat.

KEYWORDS:

Mortality salience; Resting state; Reward learning; Salience network; fMRI

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