Mechanisms of placebo analgesia: A dual-process model informed by insights from cross-species comparisons

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Placebo treatments are pharmacologically inert, but are known to alleviate symptoms across a variety of clinical conditions. Associative learning and cognitive expectations both play important roles in placebo responses, however we are just beginning to understand how interactions between these processes lead to powerful effects. Here, we review the psychological principles underlying placebo effects and our current understanding of their brain bases, focusing on studies demonstrating both the importance of cognitive expectations and those that demonstrate expectancy-independent associative learning. To account for both forms of placebo analgesia, we propose a dual-process model in which flexible, contextually driven cognitive schemas and attributions guide associative learning processes that produce stable, long-term placebo effects. According to this model, the placebo-induction paradigms with the most powerful effects are those that combine reinforcement (e.g., the experience of reduced pain after placebo treatment) with suggestions and context cues that disambiguate learning by attributing perceived benefit to the placebo. Using this model as a conceptual scaffold, we review and compare neurobiological systems identified in both human studies of placebo analgesia and behavioral pain modulation in rodents. We identify substantial overlap between the circuits involved in human placebo analgesia and those that mediate multiple forms of context-based modulation of pain behavior in rodents, including forebrain-brainstem pathways and opioid and cannabinoid systems in particular. This overlap suggests that placebo effects are part of a set of adaptive mechanisms for shaping nociceptive signaling based on its information value and anticipated optimal response in a given behavioral context.

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