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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Expectation, the placebo effect and Parkinson's disease : an investigation using high-resolution positron emission tomography Lidstone, Sarah Christine


The placebo effect represents a fascinating example of how cognition can influence the physiology of the brain and body. The expectation of therapeutic benefit elicited by a placebo given in the guise of active medication has been proposed to be a form of reward expectation, and is associated with activation of brain reward circuitry. Prominent placebo effects occur in Parkinson’s disease (PD), where the expectation of symptom improvement stimulates dopamine release in the striatum. In the work described in this dissertation, positron emission tomography with [¹¹C] raclopride was used to investigate the relationship between the strength of expectation of benefit and the degree of dopamine release in PD, and how this relationship corresponds to current models of dopamine function in reward. Chapter 3 describes a pilot study conducted in patients who had undergone subthalamic nucleus deep-brain stimulation (STN-DBS) in which we examined how awareness of stimulator status (ON or OFF) affected synaptic dopamine levels compared to when subjects were blind. No difference was detected between conditions; however, it proved to be difficult to maintain blinding due to the profound effects of STN-DBS. Chapter 4 describes the development of the methodology for the analysis of high-resolution PET data, in which we utilized the combined efforts of neuroscience and imaging physics to optimize the analysis of [¹¹C] raclopride PET data. In Chapter 5, I describe the use of verbal instructions to manipulate patients’ expectations in order to investigate how the likelihood of receiving levodopa influenced dopamine release when the patients were in fact given placebo. Placebo-induced dopamine release was differentially modulated by expectation in the dorsal and ventral striatum: dopamine release in the putamen was related monotonically to expected reward value, whereas dopamine released in the ventral striatum reflected the uncertainty of benefit or the salience of the expectation. The placebo effect in PD therefore involves at least two related but separate mechanisms: the expectation of benefit itself, which is scaled to reflect the value of the drug to the patient and is mediated by nigrostriatal dopamine, and the uncertainty or salience of benefit that is mediated by mesolimbic dopamine.

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