Teaching neurons to respond to placebos as potential treatment for Parkinson’s

Scientist have discovered a way to make neurons respond to a placebo (a medically ineffective treatment), in the same way as they would to medically effective treatment, according to a study published today in The Journal of Physiology.

They found that it is possible to turn a neuron which previously hasn’t responded to placebos (placebo ‘non-responder’ neuron) into a placebo ‘responder’ by conditioning Parkinson patients with apomorphine, a dopaminergic drug used in the treatment of Parkinson's disease (PD). 

When a placebo (saline solution) was given for the first time, it induced neither clinical benefit nor associated neuronal changes in the thalamus, a brain region known to be involved in PD. However, if repeated administrations of apomorphine were performed before placebo administration, a placebo was capable of increasing thalamus neuronal activity along with clinical improvement (reduction of muscle rigidity). Interestingly, the higher the previous administrations of apomorphine was, the larger the neuronal changes and the clinical improvement. When apomorphine was administered for 4 days in a row, the subsequent administration of a placebo induced a response that was as large as the one induced by apomorphine. These changes lasted for 24 hours.

The researchers administered apomorphine, either 1, 2, 3 or 4 days before the surgical implantation of electrodes for deep brain stimulation, which is an effective treatment for PD. During surgery, they replaced apomorphine with a placebo and recorded from single neurons in the thalamus along with the assessment of muscle rigidity of the arm.

Fabrizio Benedetti, from the Department of Neuroscience at University of Turin Medical School, Italy and first author of the study, explained,

‘These findings show that is possible to teach neurons in the thalamus to respond to placebos, so that a placebo non-responder can be turned into a placebo responder. These findings may have profound implications and applications, because we can reduce drug intake by exploiting these learning mechanisms. Since this study shows that there is a memory for drug action, the alternate administration drug-placebo-drug- placebo etc. means people would need to take less medication but yet obtain the same clinical benefit.

‘If a placebo is given after four previous administrations of apomorphine, the placebo response can be as large as the drug response, and this effect lasts up to 24 hours. Therefore, a future challenge will be to see whether this effect can be extended beyond 24 hours.’


Notes for Editors:

  1. Full paper title: Benedetti F et al (2016) Teaching neurons to respond to placebos. DOI: 10.1113/JP271322 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1113/JP271322/full
  2. The Journal of Physiology publishes advances in physiology, which increase our understanding of how our bodies function in health and disease. http://jp.physoc.org
  3. The Physiological Society brings together over 3,500 scientists from over 60 countries. The Society promotes physiology with the public and parliament alike. It supports physiologists by organising world-class conferences and offering grants for research and also publishes the latest developments in the field in its three leading scientific journals, The Journal of Physiology, Experimental Physiology and Physiological Reports. www.physoc.org



Dr Helga Groll, Media and Communications Officer, The Physiological Society

+44 (0)20 7269 5727, pressoffice@physoc.org


Corresponding author

Fabrizio Benedetti, Department of Neuroscience, University of Turin

Medical School, Corso Raffaello 30, 10125 Turin, Italy.

Phone +39 011 6708492 Fax +39 011 6708174