Placebo Effects in Women Are Boosted by Vasopressin

Reports new study in Biological Psychiatry

Philadelphia, PA, May 3, 2016

A new study in the current issue of Biological Psychiatry suggests that women are particularly susceptible to the pain-relieving placebo effect of vasopressin.

Placebos are used to help accurately measure clinical responses/outcomes when studying the effects of medications, therapies, and other treatments. The well-known “placebo effect” is a phenomenon whereby a patient’s condition improves or a patient experiences side effects despite having received a “fake” treatment.

Social behaviors are regulated, in part, by two hormones in the body – oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin has been studied in relation to the placebo effect, but vasopressin had not, until now.

Dr. Luana Colloca, Associate Professor at University of Maryland, along with colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health and Weill Cornell Medical College, recruited 109 healthy participants to study the placebo effects of vasopressin.

Increasing intensities of electrical stimuli were delivered to each participant’s hand until they reached a painful but tolerable level of shocks. Participants were then randomized to receive one of four placebo-based treatments: vasopressin, oxytocin, saline, or no treatment. The stimulus test was then modified in order to test their response to the “treatment” forty minutes after it was administered. The participants were blinded to which treatment they received, but were led to believe that it would eliminate or lessen the pain of the shocks.

“We demonstrated that a single intranasal administration of vasopressin impacts the magnitude of placebo effects,” explained Colloca. “Vasopressin increases placebo analgesic effects in women but not in men. Those women with lower acute stress and lower dispositional anxiety benefit most from the administration of the vasopressin agonist.”

“The results of this study raise interesting questions about how this hormone differentially affects the biology of the placebo response in men and women,” commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

Colloca added, “These findings add a new mechanism to the neurobiology of placebo effects and open up new research directions for understanding the vasopressin system and its implications for pain and stress-related responses.”


Notes for editors
The article is “Vasopressin Boosts Placebo Analgesic Effects in Women: A Randomized Trial” by Luana Colloca, Daniel S. Pine, Monique Ernst, Franklin G. Miller, and Christian Grillon (doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.07.019). It appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 79, Issue 10 (2016), published by Elsevier.

Full text of the article is available to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Rhiannon Bugno at +1 214 648 0880 or Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Luana Colloca at +1 410 706 8244 or

The authors’ affiliations and disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.

John H. Krystal, M.D., is Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, Chief of Psychiatry at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and a research psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. His disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available here.

About Biological Psychiatry
Biological Psychiatry is the official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, whose purpose is to promote excellence in scientific research and education in fields that investigate the nature, causes, mechanisms and treatments of disorders of thought, emotion, or behavior. In accord with this mission, this peer-reviewed, rapid-publication, international journal publishes both basic and clinical contributions from all disciplines and research areas relevant to the pathophysiology and treatment of major psychiatric disorders.

The journal publishes novel results of original research which represent an important new lead or significant impact on the field, particularly those addressing genetic and environmental risk factors, neural circuitry and neurochemistry, and important new therapeutic approaches. Reviews and commentaries that focus on topics of current research and interest are also encouraged.

Biological Psychiatry is one of the most selective and highly cited journals in the field of psychiatric neuroscience. It is ranked 6th out of 140 Psychiatry titles and 10th out of 252 Neurosciences titles in the Journal Citations Reports® published by Thomson Reuters. The 2014 Impact Factor score for Biological Psychiatry is 10.255.

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Media contact
Rhiannon Bugno
Editorial Office, Biological Psychiatry
+1 214 648 0880