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      Learned Placebo Effects in the Immune System

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          Associative learning processes are one of the major neuropsychological mechanisms steering the placebo response in different physiological systems and end organ functions. Learned placebo effects on immune functions are based on the bidirectional communication between the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral immune system. Based on this “hardware,” experimental evidence in animals and humans showed that humoral and cellular immune functions can be affected by behavioral conditioning processes. We will first highlight and summarize data documenting the variety of experimental approaches conditioning protocols employed, affecting different immunological functions by associative learning. Taking a well-established paradigm employing a conditioned taste aversion model in rats with the immunosuppressive drug cyclosporine A (CsA) as an unconditioned stimulus (US) as an example, we will then summarize the efferent and afferent communication pathways as well as central processes activated during a learned immunosuppression. In addition, the potential clinical relevance of learned placebo effects on the outcome of immune-related diseases has been demonstrated in a number of different clinical conditions in rodents. More importantly, the learned immunosuppression is not restricted to experimental animals but can be also induced in humans. These data so far show that (i) behavioral conditioned immunosuppression is not limited to a single event but can be reproduced over time, (ii) immunosuppression cannot be induced by mere expectation, (iii) psychological and biological variables can be identified as predictors for this learned immunosuppression. Together with experimental approaches employing a placebo-controlled dose reduction these data provide a basis for new therapeutic approaches to the treatment of diseases where a suppression of immune functions is required via modulation of nervous system-immune system communication by learned placebo effects.

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          Conscious expectation and unconscious conditioning in analgesic, motor, and hormonal placebo/nocebo responses.

          The placebo and nocebo effect is believed to be mediated by both cognitive and conditioning mechanisms, although little is known about their role in different circumstances. In this study, we first analyzed the effects of opposing verbal suggestions on experimental ischemic arm pain in healthy volunteers and on motor performance in Parkinsonian patients and found that verbally induced expectations of analgesia/hyperalgesia and motor improvement/worsening antagonized completely the effects of a conditioning procedure. We also measured the effects of opposing verbal suggestions on hormonal secretion and found that verbally induced expectations of increase/decrease of growth hormone (GH) and cortisol did not have any effect on the secretion of these hormones. However, if a preconditioning was performed with sumatriptan, a 5-HT(1B/1D) agonist that stimulates GH and inhibits cortisol secretion, a significant increase of GH and decrease of cortisol plasma concentrations were found after placebo administration, although opposite verbal suggestions were given. These findings indicate that verbally induced expectations have no effect on hormonal secretion, whereas they affect pain and motor performance. This suggests that placebo responses are mediated by conditioning when unconscious physiological functions such as hormonal secretion are involved, whereas they are mediated by expectation when conscious physiological processes such as pain and motor performance come into play, even though a conditioning procedure is performed.
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            Effects of expectation on placebo-induced dopamine release in Parkinson disease.

            Expectations play a central role in the mechanism of the placebo effect. In Parkinson disease (PD), the placebo effect is associated with release of endogenous dopamine in both nigrostriatal and mesoaccumbens projections, yet the factors that control this dopamine release are undetermined. To determine how the strength of expectation of clinical improvement influences the degree of striatal dopamine release in response to placebo in patients with moderate PD. Randomized, repeated-measures study with perceived expectation as the independent between-subjects variable. University of British Columbia Hospital, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Patients Thirty-five patients with mild to moderate PD undergoing levodopa treatment. Intervention Verbal manipulation was used to modulate the expectations of patients, who were told that they had a particular probability (25%, 50%, 75%, or 100%) of receiving active medication when they in fact received placebo. The dopaminergic response to placebo was measured using [11C]raclopride positron emission tomography. The clinical response was also measured (Unified Parkinson Disease Rating Scale) and subjective responses were ascertained using patient self-report. Significant dopamine release occurred when the declared probability of receiving active medication was 75%, but not at other probabilities. Placebo-induced dopamine release in all regions of the striatum was also highly correlated with the dopaminergic response to open administration of active medication. Whereas response to prior medication was the major determinant of placebo-induced dopamine release in the motor striatum, expectation of clinical improvement was additionally required to drive dopamine release in the ventral striatum. The strength of belief of improvement can directly modulate dopamine release in patients with PD. Our findings demonstrate the importance of uncertainty and/or salience over and above a patient's prior treatment response in regulating the placebo effect and have important implications for the interpretation and design of clinical trials.
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              Behaviorally Conditioned Immunosuppression


                Author and article information

                Zeitschrift für Psychologie
                Hogrefe Publishing
                January 2014
                : 222
                : 3
                : 148-153
                [ 1 ] Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavioral Immunobiology, University Hospital Essen, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany
                Author notes
                Sabine Vits, Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavioral Immunobiology, University Hospital Essen, University of Duisburg-Essen, Hufelandstr. 55, 45122 Essen, Germany, +49 201 723-4505, +49 201 723-5948, sabine.vits@ 123456uk-essen.de
                Self URI (journal-page): https://econtent.hogrefe.com/loi/zfp
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