Transient and sustained neural responses to death-related linguistic cues

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Recent research showed that perception of death-related vs death-unrelated linguistic cues produced increased frontoparietal activity but decreased insular activity. This study investigated (i) whether the increased frontoparietal and decreased insular activities are, respectively, associated with transient trial-specific processes of death-related linguistic cues and sustained death-related thought during death-relevance judgments on linguistic cues and (ii) whether the neural activity underlying death-related thought can predict individuals’ dispositional death anxiety. Participants were presented with death-related/unrelated words, life-related/unrelated words, and negative-valence/neutral words in separate sessions. Participants were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging while performing death-relevance, life-relevance, and valence judgments on the words, respectively. The contrast of death-related vs death-unrelated words during death-relevance judgments revealed transient increased activity in the left inferior parietal lobule, the right frontal eye field, and the right superior parietal lobule. The contrast of death-relevance judgments vs life-relevance/valence judgments showed decreased activity in the bilateral insula. The sustained insular activity was correlated with dispositional death anxiety, but only in those with weak transient frontoparietal responses to death-related words. Our results dissociate the transient and sustained neural responses to death-related linguistic cues and suggest that the combination of the transient and sustained neural activities can predict dispositional death anxiety.

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