Effects of oxytocin on placebo and nocebo effects in a pain conditioning paradigm: a randomized controlled trial


Oxytocin has been shown to increase trust, decrease anxiety, and affect learning as has been observed in conditioning paradigms. Trust, anxiety, and learning are important factors that influence placebo effects. In this study, we investigated whether oxytocin can increase placebo analgesia, decrease nocebo hyperalgesia, and influence extinction processes of both. Eighty male volunteers were assigned to a 40 IU of oxytocin nasal spray group, or to a placebo control group. Placebo analgesia and nocebo hyperalgesia were induced by a conditioning procedure in combination with verbal suggestions. The results demonstrate that the conditioning procedure successfully elicited significant placebo analgesia and nocebo hyperalgesia responses (P < .001). Furthermore, extinction was observed (P < .001), although placebo and nocebo responses did not return to baseline and remained significant. Oxytocin did not influence placebo analgesia or nocebo hyperalgesia and had no effect on extinction. This study provides support against the placebo-boosting effects of oxytocin and was the first one to demonstrate that it also did not influence nocebo effects or extinction processes, however, these results pertain to only a male sample. As managing placebo and nocebo effects has widespread clinical implications, further research should investigate other neurobiological or behavioral pathways to boost placebo and decrease nocebo effects. PERSPECTIVE: The present study demonstrated that placebo analgesia and nocebo hyperalgesia can be successfully induced by conditioning and verbal suggestions. We could not confirm the hypothesis that oxytocin affects either of these phenomena. Other pharmacological agents and behavioral manipulations for increasing placebo and decreasing nocebo effects should be investigated.

Journal of Pain
Aleksandrina Skvortsova
Aleksandrina Skvortsova
Assistant Professor