Review Article

Molecular Imaging and Biology

, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp 176-185

First online:

Understanding the Placebo Effect: Contributions from Neuroimaging

  • Sarah C. Christine LidstoneAffiliated withPacific Parkinson’s Research Centre and Graduate Program in Neuroscience, University of British Columbia
  • , A. Jon StoesslAffiliated withPacific Parkinson’s Research Centre, University of British Columbia Email author 

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Neuroimaging studies have provided a major contribution to our understanding of the mechanisms of the placebo effect in neurological and psychiatric disorders. Expectation of symptom improvement has long been believed to play a critical role in the placebo effect, and is associated with increased endogenous striatal dopamine release in Parkinson’s disease and increased endogenous opioid transmission in placebo analgesia. Evidence from positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging studies suggests that expectations of symptom improvement are driven by frontal cortical areas, particularly the dorsolateral prefrontal, orbitofrontal, and anterior cingulate cortices. The ventral striatum is involved in the expectation of rewarding stimuli and, together with the prefrontal cortex, has also been shown to play an important role in the placebo-induced expectation of therapeutic benefit. Understanding the mechanisms of the placebo effect has important implications for treatment of several medical conditions, including depression, pain, and Parkinson’s disease.

Key words

Placebo effect Positron emission tomography Parkinson’s disease Dopamine Reward Expectation Depression Pain