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Review article: Biomedical intelligence

Vol. 150 No. 3536 (2020)

Understanding the mechanisms of placebo and nocebo effects

Cite this as:
Swiss Med Wkly. 2020;150:w20340


Although placebos have long been considered a nuisance in clinical research, over recent years they have become an active and productive field of research. Indeed, the placebo effect represents an elegant model to understand how the brain works. It is worth knowing that there is not a single but many placebo effects, with different mechanisms across different systems, medical conditions and therapeutic interventions. For example, brain mechanisms of expectation, anxiety and reward are all involved, as well as a variety of learning phenomena. There is also some experimental evidence of different genetic variants in placebo responsiveness. Pain and Parkinson’s disease represent the most productive models to better understand the neurobiology of the placebo effect. In these medical conditions the neural networks involved have indeed been identified: that is, opioid, cannabinoid, cholecystokinin, cyclooxygenase, and dopamine modulatory networks in pain; and part of the basal ganglia circuitry in Parkinson’s disease. Overall, there is today compelling evidence that placebos and drugs share common biochemical pathways and activate the same receptor pathways, which suggests possible interference between social stimuli and therapeutic rituals on one hand and pharmacological agents on the other. The same holds true for the nocebo effect, the opposite phenomenon of placebo. The assessment of patients’ expectations should become the rule in clinical trials in order to allow us a better interpretation of therapeutic outcomes when comparing placebo and active treatment groups. Administering drugs covertly is another way to identify the placebo psychobiological component without the administration of any placebo, and this provides important information on the role of patient’s expectations in the therapeutic outcome. A further in-depth analysis of placebo and nocebo phenomena will certainly provide important information in the near future for a better understanding of human biology, medicine and society.


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