University of Colorado researchers find placebo effect applies to broken hearts

Valentine‘s Day is not full of love, candy and flowers for everyone. For some, the holiday can feel painful.

But a new study University of Colorado researchers conducted on people who had recently gone through a breakup found that positive expectations could impact the brain and spur the release of neurochemicals that improve people‘s moods.

Leonie Koban, a postdoctoral research associate, and Tor Wager, a professor of cognitive science, explored the idea by testing the impact of the placebo effect on 40 participants who had recently gone through an “unwanted romantic breakup,” according to a CU news release.

“A number of studies have investigated the effects of placebo and expectations on bodily conditions, such as physical pain,” Koban wrote in an email. “In our study, we showed that expectations of relief also have powerful effects on emotional pain, such as the emotional pain following a romantic breakup.”

Research has shown that breakups, like other stressful events, can increase a person‘s risk of experiencing a depressive episode, Koban said. They also can spur other psychological problems.

For this reason, Koban said the research into how expectations can be used to “regulate negative feelings” is important.

Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, machine, researchers measured how participants felt when looking at photos of their exes, photos of friends who are the same gender as their ex, and then when a hot stimulus was placed on their arms to cause pain.

Some similar areas of the brain lit up for each of the different stimuli, including the thalamus, insula and cingulate cortex, Koban said in an email.

However, other studies have found that brain activity patterns as a whole are different when responding to emotional versus physical pain.

Participants were then split into two groups and given a nasal spray. One group was told the spray was a “powerful analgesic” that could reduce emotional pain, while the other group was told it was saline solution. They then repeated the experiment in the fMRI machine.

Members of the placebo group, who believed they had received medication for emotional pain, felt less physical pain and felt better emotionally.

Importantly, their brains also responded differently when shown photos of their exes. Activity increased in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is associated with modulating emotions, while other areas of the brain associated with rejection calmed down.

Activity also increased in an area of the midbrain called the periaqueductal gray, or PAG, which controls neurochemicals, such as dopamine, that can elevate moods and decrease pain.

Koban said it is possible that using expectations to decide which aspects to focus on in a complex, negative event like a breakup can help shape people‘s overall experiences. As an example, she said if people expect to feel less emotional pain, they might implicitly shift their thoughts “to less painful and more positive aspects of the separation” or other positive aspects of their lives.

“We think expectations are so powerful because they play a key role in how the brain works in a more general sense,” she said. “Simply put, modern theories of brain function propose that sensory input (e.g., what we see, hear, or the pain we feel) is combined with expectations we have (e.g., we expect to see a gray elephant when we go to the zoo, but not a pink one), to shape our actual experience of the world.”

Koban added that more studies are necessary to test these ideas.

In addition to placebo medications, Koban said researchers predict that “any treatment that evokes positive expectation of improvement would also lead to a placebo effect.”

Simple activities that have some intrinsic benefits, such as walking or doing yoga, also can be “boosted” by having positive expectations on their potential effects.