Effects of acute psychological stress on placebo and nocebo responses in a clinically relevant model of visceroception

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Abstract

There is evidence to suggest a role of emotions in placebo and nocebo effects, but whether acute psychological stress changes the magnitude of placebo or nocebo responses has not been tested. In a clinically relevant model of visceroception, we assessed effects of acute psychological stress on changes in urgency and pain in response to positive or negative treatment suggestions. In 120 healthy volunteers, perceived urge-to-defecate and pain in response to individually calibrated rectal distensions were measured with visual analogue scales during a BASELINE. Participants then underwent the Trier Social Stress Test (N = 60) or a simple cognitive task (control, N = 60) and were randomized to positive (placebo), negative (nocebo), or neutral treatment information regarding intravenous administration of saline. The series of distensions was repeated, and changes in visual analogue scales from BASELINE to TEST were compared between groups using analysis of covariance and planned post hoc tests. Treatment information emerged as a main factor (P <0.001), supporting treatment information effects for both urgency and pain. Effects for urgency were modulated by stress (interaction effect: P <0.05): Positive information reduced urgency (P = 0.025), while negative information increased urgency (P = 0.026) only in stressed groups. For pain, effects of stress emerged for nocebo responses, which were only evident in stressed groups (P = 0.009). This is the first experimental study supporting effects of acute psychological stress on placebo and nocebo responses in visceroception. Results call for mechanistic as well as patient studies to assess how psychological stress shapes patients' treatment expectations and thereby affects health outcomes.

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