How the number of learning trials affects placebo and nocebo responses

Citation: Colloca, L., Petrovic, P., Wager. T. D., Ingvar, M., & Benedetti, F. (2010). How the number of learning trials affects placebo and nocebo responses. Pain.

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Conditioning procedures are used in many placebo studies because evidence suggests that conditioning-related placebo responses are usually more robust than those induced by verbal suggestions alone. However, it has not been shown whether there is a causal relation between the number of conditioning trials and the resistance to extinction of placebo and nocebo responses. Here we test the effects of either one or four sessions of conditioning on the modulation of both non-painful and painful stimuli delivered to the dorsum of the foot. Placebo and nocebo manipulations were obtained by pairing green or red light to a series of stimuli that were made lower or higher with respect to a yellow light associated with a series of control stimuli. Subjects were told that the lights would indicate a treatment that would reduce or increase non-painful and painful stimuli to the foot. They were randomly assigned to either Group 1 or 2. Group 1 underwent one session of conditioning and Group 2 received four sessions of conditioning. We found that one session of conditioning (Group 1) induced nocebo responses, but not placebo responses in no pain condition. After one session of conditioning, we observed both nocebo and placebo responses to painful stimulation. However, these effects extinguished over time. Conversely, four sessions of conditioning (Group 2) induced robust placebo and nocebo responses to both non-painful and painful stimuli that persisted over the entire experiment. These findings suggest that the strength of learning may be clinically important for producing long-lasting placebo effects.