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How placebo effects can impact brain activity

December 14, 2021

In one of the largest placebo neuroimaging meta-analyses to date, a new study has shown that placebo effects can alter brain activity in a way that is similar to targeted brain stimulation treatments for depression. The authors go on to model the implications of this shared mechanism on conventional placebo-controlled clinical trial designs and highlight the potential importance of developing new protocols for measuring efficacy in the field of neuromodulation.

The study is published in Molecular Psychiatry.

“Our study demonstrates that placebo effects meaningfully modulate the brain – activating similar brain regions as advanced therapies for treatment-resistant depression,” says Dr. Matthew Burke, cognitive neurologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and lead author of the study, which was done in collaboration with researchers at Harvard Medical School.

“This line of research is totally outside-the-box and points to the need for a fundamental reconceptualization of placebo effects, and how to creatively harness placebo effects more in clinical care.”

Researchers say this study sets the stage for new lines of placebo-focused research in medicine. Future work is needed to better understand the neurobiology of the brain’s placebo network and evolving knowledge of placebo effects to develop new therapies for treatment-resistant brain disorders.

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