Placebo effects held an ambivalent place in health care for at least two centuries. On the one hand, placebos are traditionally used as controls in clinical trials to correct for biases and the placebo response is viewed as an effect to be factored out in order to isolate and accurately measure the effects of the treatment. On the other hand, there is scientific evidence that placebo effects represent fascinating psychoneurobiological events involving the contribution of distinct central nervous as well as peripheral physiological mechanisms that influence pain perception and clinical pain symptoms and substantially modulate the response to pain therapeutics. Therefore, placebo effects have shifted from being a challenge for clinical trials to a resource to trigger the reduction of pain based on endogenous mechanisms that can be activated in the brain to promote hypolagesia, self-healing, and well-being. This is relevant in acute pain settings given that chronic opioid users die within approximately 2.5 years of being prescribed their first opioid medication to treat acute pain. Namely, analgesic effects can also occur without formal conditioning and direct prior experience because crucial information necessary to build up expectations of analgesia can be acquired through observation of a therapeutic benefit in others. Placebo analgesic effects following the observation of a benefit in another person are similar in magnitude to those induced by directly experiencing an analgesic benefit. These observations emphasize that contextual cues substantially modulate the individual placebo analgesic effects. In this project, we propose a compelling research agenda to explore the neural mechanisms of hypoalgesia driven by observation as a foundation for future development of novel nonpharmacological pain therapies using pharmacological functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), and combined EEG/fMRI. It builds on a decade of experience in placebo research in PI Colloca?s lab and with University of Maryland collaborators experienced in brain mapping and pain research.
In Aim 1, we will determine the role of endogenous opioids on the neural mechanisms of observationally-induced hypoalgesia by using the opioid antagonist naloxone in a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) setting.
In Aim 2, we will identify the impact of empathy by exploring how being in the immersive environment can enhance observationally-induced analgesia.
In Aim 3, we leverage the EEG/fMRI to determine the neural EEG/fMRI transient changes that could co-occur when socially-induced expectations are violated. The proposed research will generate mechanistic research that can be directly exploited to develop easily implementable therapeutic strategies such video clips and virtual reality tools for acute pain management.

Public Health Relevance

Understanding the brain mechanisms of placebo analgesic effects driven by observation can provide mechanistic-based and easily implementable therapeutic pain solutions. This knowledge will ultimately help minimize the burden of opioid epidemics in acute settings by promoting therapeutic strategies that favor endogenous pain reliefs.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Somatosensory and Pain Systems Study Section (SPS)
Program Officer
Belfer, Inna
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Maryland Baltimore
Other Health Professions
Schools of Nursing
United States
Zip Code