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Papers of the Week

Papers: 30 Sep 2023 - 6 Oct 2023

2023 Sep 22



Placebo treatment affects brain systems related to affective and cognitive processes, but not nociceptive pain.


Botvinik-Nezer R, Petre B, Ceko M, Lindquist MA, Friedman NP, Wager TD


Placebo analgesia is a replicable and well-studied phenomenon, yet it remains unclear to what degree it includes modulation of nociceptive processes. Some studies find effects consistent with nociceptive effects, but meta-analyses show that these effects are often small. We analyzed placebo analgesia in a large fMRI study (N = 392), including placebo effects on brain responses to noxious stimuli. Placebo treatment caused robust analgesia in both conditioned thermal and unconditioned mechanical pain. Placebo did not decrease fMRI activity in nociceptive pain regions, including the Neurologic Pain Signature (NPS) and pre-registered spinothalamic pathway regions, with strong support from Bayes Factor analyses. However, placebo treatment reduced activity in pre-registered analyses of a second neuromarker, the Stimulus Intensity Independent Pain Signature (SIIPS), and several associated a priori brain regions related to motivation and value, in both thermal and mechanical pain. Individual differences in behavioral analgesia were correlated with neural changes in both thermal and mechanical pain. Our results indicate that processes related to affective and cognitive aspects of pain primarily drive placebo analgesia.