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The experience of pain arises from both physiological and psychological factors, including one's beliefs and expectations. Thus, placebo treatments that have no intrinsic pharmacological effects may produce analgesia by altering expectations. However, controversy exists regarding whether placebos alter sensory pain transmission, pain affect, or simply produce compliance with the suggestions of investigators. In two functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments, we found that placebo analgesia was related to decreased brain activity in pain-sensitive brain regions, including the thalamus, insula, and anterior cingulate cortex, and was associated with increased activity during anticipation of pain in the prefrontal cortex, providing evidence that placebos alter the experience of pain.
Patient–physician interactions significantly contribute to placebo effects and clinical outcomes. While the neural correlates of placebo responses have been studied in patients, the neurobiology of the clinician during treatment is unknown. This study investigated physicians’ brain activations during patient–physician interaction while the patient was experiencing pain, including a ‘treatment‘, ‘no-treatment’ and ‘control’ condition. Here, we demonstrate that physicians activated brain regions previously implicated in expectancy for pain–relief and increased attention during treatment of patients, including the right ventrolateral and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices. The physician’s ability to take the patients’ perspective correlated with increased brain activations in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, a region that has been associated with processing of reward and subjective value. We suggest that physician treatment involves neural representations of treatment expectation, reward processing and empathy, paired with increased activation in attention-related structures. Our findings further the understanding of the neural representations associated with reciprocal interactions between clinicians and patients; a hallmark for successful treatment outcomes.