Personality trait predictors of placebo analgesia and neurobiological correlates

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2013 Mar;38(4):639-46. doi: 10.1038/npp.2012.227. Epub 2012 Nov 16.


Personality traits have been shown to interact with environmental cues to modulate biological responses including treatment responses, and potentially having a role in the formation of placebo effects. Here, we assessed psychological traits in 50 healthy controls as to their capacity to predict placebo analgesic effects, placebo-induced activation of μ-opioid neurotransmission and changes in cortisol plasma levels during a sustained experimental pain challenge (hypertonic saline infused in the masseter muscle) with and without placebo administration. Statistical analyses showed that an aggregate of scores from Ego-Resiliency, NEO Altruism, NEO Straightforwardness (positive predictors) and NEO Angry Hostility (negative predictor) scales accounted for 25% of the variance in placebo analgesic responses. Molecular imaging showed that subjects scoring above the median in a composite of those trait measures also presented greater placebo-induced activation of μ-opioid neurotransmission in the subgenual and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), orbitofrontal cortex, insula, nucleus accumbens, amygdala and periaqueductal gray (PAG). Endogenous opioid release in the dorsal ACC and PAG was positively correlated with placebo-induced reductions in pain ratings. Significant reductions in cortisol levels were observed during placebo administration and were positively correlated with decreases in pain ratings, μ-opioid system activation in the dorsal ACC and PAG, and as a trend, negatively with NEO Angry Hostility scores. Our results show that personality traits explain a substantial proportion of the variance in placebo analgesic responses and are further associated with activations in endogenous opioid neurotransmission, and as a trend cortisol plasma levels. This initial data, if replicated in larger sample, suggest that simple trait measures easily deployable in the field could be utilized to reduce variability in clinical trials, but may also point to measures of individual resiliency in the face of aversive stimuli such as persistent pain and potentially other stressors.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analgesia / methods
  • Analgesia / psychology*
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Forecasting
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Male
  • Pain Measurement / methods
  • Pain Measurement / psychology*
  • Personality / physiology*
  • Personality Tests*
  • Placebo Effect
  • Young Adult


  • Hydrocortisone