Magnetoencephalographic study of the placebo effect in traditional and complementary /alternative medicine

Main funder

Funder's project number: 13.6.2018

Funds granted by main funder (€)

  • 15 500,00

Funding program

Project timetable

Project start date: 01/07/2018

Project end date: 31/12/2018


Expectations control human behaviour and even autonomic physiological reactions. In spite of its importance, the concept of expectation is not well defined, even though the effects of expectations of future events have received much research. The present project aims to analyse and characterize expectations at the psychological and neurophysiological level. Specifically, the effect of different types of expectations for pain relief by a painkiller (placebo analgesia) will be studied. A central distinction is between explicit and implicit (automatic) expectations. The effect of explicit expectations on pain relief has been found to be variable, and there are serious methodological concerns with their measurement. Implicit expectations, on the other hand, have received very little research in the field of pain treatment. Explicit expectations will be assessed by questionnaires, whereas implicit expectations will be measured by the use of magnetoencephalography, which allows real-time measurement of neural activity, with good spatial resolution, and with reaction times to priming stimuli relevant for pain treatment. It is hypothesized that implicit expectations should explain more of the placebo analgesic effect than explicit expectations, as implicit expectations are based on personal experience (classical conditioning). Moreover, recording of implicit expectations avoid the problems associated with measurements of explicit expectations. Three experiments are planned: The novel aspects of this project are 1) the investigation of the key element in the placebo effect, namely the expectation itself. Previous studies have given valuable information on the effects of expectations, but have not analysed the underlying expectations. Thus, the present project will advance significantly our knowledge of the mechanisms underlying placebo analgesia. 2) Expectations will be studied in the context of medical and complementary / alternative medicine (CAM) treatment of acute pain. Surprisingly, very few studies have investigate placebo effects in CAM, even though placebo effects most likely are strong in this form of treatment, as several studies have shown a lack of effect of several CAM treatments. Thus, this study will compare placebo effects in traditional medicine and CAM treatment.
The plan is to run anexperiment with magnetoencephalographic (MEG) recording of the brain’s response to painful stimuli and how this response is modified by positive expectations about effects of treatment for pain (placebo effects). The study will be run at Center for Interdiciplinary Brain Research at the University of Jyväskylä, and the funding should cover the cost or part of the cost of using the MEG for 30 research participants as well as having MR scans taken for source localization. MEG is a method for recording cortical and partly sub-cortical activity in the brain. MEG has similarities to electroencephalography (EEG) as it is recorded via surface electrodes, but MEG records the magnetic potentials associated with electrical current, and not electric activity as the EEG does. The magnetic potential has the advantage of allowing substantially more precise source localization, i.e. more precise definition of where in the brain activity is located, compared to the EEG. The MEG signal is also “cleaner” with less noise than the EEG, so fewer stimulus presentations are needed. This is a definite advantage when studying pain, as more stimuli can lead to increases in pain. Finally, the MEG records the brain’s response in real time, not a correlate of the brain’s response, as indirect methods like magnetic resonance imaging or positron emission tomography does. The MEG is in use in only about 200 laboratories in the world. There is no MEG in Norway. In Finland, however, there is a MEG at the Center for Interdiciplinary Brain Research at the University of Jyväskylä, and they have highly skilled personnel to perform MEG studies and interpret the results.
The study will investigate the physiological brain correlates to expectations of effective treatment for pain, as well as the brain’s response to painful stimulation. This has not been researched before with the use of MEG. It is planned to publish the study as two manuscripts, preferably in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Participating personnel: Dr. Tiina Parviainen, Director, Jyväskylä Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Research
Senior Research Fellow Dr. Jan Wikgren, Department of Psychology, University of Jyväskylä, and Docent, University of Turku.
Dr. Magne Arve Flaten, Department of Psychology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
MA Jeanette W. Svendsen, Department of Psychology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway

Principal Investigator

Primary responsible unit

Last updated on 2021-17-03 at 12:08