This shows a person surrounded by pills.
Significantly, the work of the Mount Sinai team can also be viewed in a much broader context: harnessing beliefs in a systematic manner to better serve mental health treatment and research in general. Credit: Neuroscience News

Power of Beliefs on Brain and Drug Dosing Behavior

Summary: Researchers discovered that a person’s beliefs about drugs can influence their brain activity and behavior similarly to pharmacological effects.

Focusing on beliefs about nicotine, the study revealed that human beliefs have a precise and dose-dependent influence on the brain, which can be crucial for understanding addiction and various disorders. By instructing participants to believe in different nicotine strengths while keeping the actual level constant, functional neuroimaging demonstrated the thalamus and prefrontal cortex’s dose-dependent response to beliefs.

These findings have significant implications for addiction treatment and mental health research.

Key Facts:

  1. Beliefs about drugs can modulate brain activity and behavior in a dose-dependent manner, akin to pharmacological effects.
  2. The thalamus, a key site for nicotine in the brain, displayed dose-dependent responses to participants’ beliefs about nicotine strength.
  3. Understanding the role of beliefs in addiction and mental health could lead to innovative treatments and interventions.

Source: Mount Sinai Hospital

Mount Sinai researchers have shown for the first time that a person’s beliefs related to drugs can influence their own brain activity and behavioral responses in a way comparable to the dose-dependent effects of pharmacology.

The implications of the study, which directly focused on beliefs about nicotine, are profound. They range from elucidating how the neural mechanisms underlying beliefs may play a key role in addiction, to optimizing pharmacological and nonpharmacological treatments by leveraging the power of human beliefs.

The study was published in the journal Nature Mental Health.

“Beliefs can have a powerful influence on our behavior, yet their effects are considered imprecise and rarely examined by quantitative neuroscience methods,” says Xiaosi Gu, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, and Neuroscience, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and senior author of the study.

“We set out to investigate if human beliefs can modulate brain activities in a dose-dependent manner similar to what drugs do, and found a high level of precision in how beliefs can influence the human brain. This finding could be crucial for advancing our knowledge about the role of beliefs in addiction as well as a broad range of disorders and their treatments.”

To explore this dynamic, the Mount Sinai team, led by Ofer Perl, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Gu’s lab when the study was conducted, instructed nicotine-dependent study participants to believe that an electronic cigarette they were about to vape contained either low, medium, or high strengths of nicotine, when in fact the level remained constant. Participants then underwent functional neuroimaging (fMRI) while performing a decision-making task known to engage neural circuits activated by nicotine.

The scientists found that the thalamus, an important binding site for nicotine in the brain, showed a dose-dependent response to the subject’s beliefs about nicotine strength, providing compelling evidence to support the relationship between subjective beliefs and biological substrates in the human brain. This effect was previously thought to apply only to pharmacologic agents.

A similar dose-dependent effect of beliefs was also found in the functional connectivity between the thalamus and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is considered important for decision-making and belief states.

“Our findings provide a mechanistic explanation for the well-known variations in individual responses to drugs,” notes Dr. Gu, “and suggest that subjective beliefs could be a direct target for the treatment of substance use disorders. They could also advance our understanding of how cognitive interventions, such as psychotherapy, work at the neurobiological level in general for a wide range of psychiatric conditions beyond addiction.”

Dr. Gu, who is one of the world’s foremost researchers in the emerging field of computational psychiatry, cites another way in which her team’s research could inform clinical care.

“The finding that human beliefs about drugs play such a pivotal role suggests that we could potentially enhance patients’ responses to pharmacological treatments by leveraging these beliefs,” she explains.  

Significantly, the work of the Mount Sinai team can also be viewed in a much broader context:  harnessing beliefs in a systematic manner to better serve mental health treatment and research in general.

“We’re interested in testing the effects of beliefs on drugs beyond nicotine to include addictive substances like cannabis and alcohol, and therapeutic agents like antidepressants and psychedelics,” says Dr. Gu.

“It would be fascinating to examine, for example, how the potency of a drug might impact the effect of drug-related beliefs on the brain and behavior, and how long-lasting the impact of those beliefs might be. Our findings could potentially revolutionize how we view drugs and therapy in a much broader context of health.”

About this psychology, belief, and neuropharmacology research news

Author: Elizabeth Dowling
Source: Mount Sinai Hospital
Contact: Elizabeth Dowling – Mount Sinai Hospital
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Closed access.
Nicotine-related beliefs induce dose-dependent responses in the human brain” by Xiaosi Gu et al. Nature Mental Health


Nicotine-related beliefs induce dose-dependent responses in the human brain

Beliefs have a powerful influence on our behavior, yet their neural mechanisms remain elusive. Here we investigate whether beliefs could impact brain activities in a way akin to pharmacological dose-dependent effects.

Nicotine-dependent humans were told that nicotine strength in an electronic cigarette was either ‘low’, ‘medium’ or ‘high’, while nicotine content was held constant. After vaping, participants underwent functional neuroimaging and performed a decision-making task known to engage neural circuits affected by nicotine.

Beliefs about nicotine strength induced dose-dependent responses in the thalamus, a key binding site for nicotine, but not in other brain regions such as the striatum.

Nicotine-related beliefs also parametrically modulated the connectivity between the thalamus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region important for decision-making.

These findings reveal a high level of precision in the way beliefs influence the brain, offering mechanistic insights into humans’ heterogeneous responses to drugs and a pivotal role of beliefs in addiction.

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