The neurobiology of placebo analgesia: from endogenous opioids to cholecystokinin

Prog Neurobiol. 1997 Jun;52(2):109-25. doi: 10.1016/s0301-0082(97)00006-3.


Placebo is a widespread phenomenon in medicine and biology and its mechanisms are understood only partially. Most of our understanding of placebo comes from studies on pain. In particular, placebo analgesia represents a situation where the administration of a substance known to be non-analgesic produces an analgesic response when the subject is told that it is a pain killer. Several theories try to explain this effect by means of anxiety mechanisms, cognitive processes and classical conditioning. However, the placebo response is bidirectional, i.e. analgesic and algesic. In fact, if a subject is told that the ineffective substance is a hyperalgesic drug, a pain increase may occur. The negative effects of placebo are called nocebo and, in extreme cases, they lead to severe pathological conditions. The neurobiology of placebo was born when some authors discovered that placebo analgesia is mediated by endogenous opioids. This claim comes from the observation that the opioid antagonist naloxone can reverse placebo analgesia. On the basis of the discovery of the anti-opioid action of the neuropeptide cholecystokinin, recent studies demonstrate that the blockade of cholecystokinin receptors potentiates the placebo analgesic response, thus suggesting an inhibitory role of cholecystokinin in placebo analgesia. Thus, by antagonizing the anti-opioid action of cholecystokinin during a placebo procedure, a potentiation of the endogenous opioid systems can be obtained.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesia / psychology*
  • Animals
  • Cholecystokinin / physiology*
  • Drug Interactions
  • Opioid Peptides / physiology*
  • Placebo Effect*


  • Opioid Peptides
  • Cholecystokinin