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J Neurosci. 1999 Jan 1;19(1):484-94.

Neuropharmacological dissection of placebo analgesia: expectation-activated opioid systems versus conditioning-activated specific subsystems.

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  • 1Department of Neuroscience and Centro Interuniversitario per la Neurofisio logia del Dolore Center for the Neurophysiology of Pain, University of Torino Medical School, 10125 Torino, Italy.


We investigated the mechanisms underlying the activation of endogenous opioids in placebo analgesia by using the model of human experimental ischemic arm pain. Different types of placebo analgesic responses were evoked by means of cognitive expectation cues, drug conditioning, or a combination of both. Drug conditioning was performed by means of either the opioid agonist morphine hydrochloride or the nonopioid ketorolac tromethamine. Expectation cues produced placebo responses that were completely blocked by the opioid antagonist naloxone. Expectation cues together with morphine conditioning produced placebo responses that were completely antagonized by naloxone. Morphine conditioning alone (without expectation cues) induced a naloxone-reversible placebo effect. By contrast, ketorolac conditioning together with expectation cues elicited a placebo effect that was blocked by naloxone only partially. Ketorolac conditioning alone produced placebo responses that were naloxone-insensitive. Therefore, we evoked different types of placebo responses that were either naloxone-reversible or partially naloxone-reversible or, otherwise, naloxone-insensitive, depending on the procedure used to evoke the placebo response. These findings show that cognitive factors and conditioning are balanced in different ways in placebo analgesia, and this balance is crucial for the activation of opioid or nonopioid systems. Expectation triggers endogenous opioids, whereas conditioning activates specific subsystems. In fact, if conditioning is performed with opioids, placebo analgesia is mediated via opioid receptors, if conditioning is performed with nonopioid drugs, other nonopioid mechanisms result to be involved.

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