To test the effects of cortisol on affective experience, the authors orally administered a placebo, 20 mg cortisol, or 40 mg cortisol to 85 men. Participants' affective responses to negative and neutral stimuli were measured. Self-reported affective state was also assessed. Participants in the 40-mg group (showing extreme cortisol elevations within the physiological range) rated neutral stimuli as more highly arousing than did participants in the placebo and 20-mg groups. Furthermore, within the 20-mg group, individuals with higher cortisol elevations made higher arousal ratings of neutral stimuli. However, cortisol was unrelated to self-reported affective state. Thus, findings indicate that acute cortisol elevations cause heightened arousal in response to objectively nonarousing stimuli, in the absence of effects on mood.
The experience of aversion is shaped by multiple physiological and psychological factors including one's expectations. Recent work has shown that expectancy manipulation can alter perceptions of aversive events and concomitant brain activation. Accruing evidence indicates a primary role of altered expectancies in the placebo effect. Here, we probed the mechanism by which expectation attenuates sensory taste transmission by examining how brain areas activated by misleading information during an expectancy period modulate insula and amygdala activation to a highly aversive bitter taste. In a rapid event-related fMRI design, we showed that activations in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to a misleading cue that the taste would be mildly aversive predicted decreases in insula and amygdala activation to the highly aversive taste. OFC and rACC activation to the misleading cue were also associated with less aversive ratings of that taste. Additional analyses revealed consistent results demonstrating functional connectivity among the OFC, rACC, and insula. Altering expectancies of upcoming aversive events are shown here to depend on robust functional associations among brain regions implicated in prior work on the placebo effect.
The experience of pain arises from both physiological and psychological factors, including one's beliefs and expectations. Thus, placebo treatments that have no intrinsic pharmacological effects may produce analgesia by altering expectations. However, controversy exists regarding whether placebos alter sensory pain transmission, pain affect, or simply produce compliance with the suggestions of investigators. In two functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments, we found that placebo analgesia was related to decreased brain activity in pain-sensitive brain regions, including the thalamus, insula, and anterior cingulate cortex, and was associated with increased activity during anticipation of pain in the prefrontal cortex, providing evidence that placebos alter the experience of pain.