Lauren Atlas
NCCIH Investigator & Chief of the Section on Affective Neuroscience and Pain, National Institutes of Health 

The effects of instructions, expectations, and conditioning on pain

Placebo effects are thought to depend on two main psychological processes: conscious expectations and conditioning, or associative learning. In this talk I will present a series of mechanistic studies designed to isolate each of these processes and measure effects on pain, autonomic responses, and brain activation. Using computational models, we are able to dissociate the joint contributions of instructions and learning. We show that these two factors have dissociable effects on neural systems involved in aversive learning, and that they have separable influences on pain reports and autonomic responses. This approach indicates that rather than arguing over whether placebo effects depend on conditioning or conscious expectancy, we should recognize that outcomes will be beneficial when we combine these two approaches, which are largely independent.


Dr. Atlas received her B.A. in psychology from The University of Chicago in 2003, and her Ph.D. in psychology in 2011 from Columbia University, where she studied under the mentorship of Dr. Tor D. Wager. Her doctoral work combined functional magnetic resonance imaging, experimental psychology, and psychopharmacology to examine the mechanisms by which beliefs and expectations influence pain and its modulation. Her dissertation, “Brain mechanisms of expectancy effects on pain experience,” was awarded with distinction. Dr. Atlas’s postdoctoral research was conducted in Dr. Elizabeth A. Phelps’s laboratory at New York University, where she extended computational models of decision-making to isolate components of expectancy, and to understand how these components influence physiological and neural markers of aversive learning. In July 2014, Dr. Atlas joined NIH as an NCCIH investigator and chief of the Section on Affective Neuroscience and Pain. She also holds a joint appointment with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Her laboratory uses a multi-modal approach to investigate how expectations and learning influence pain and emotion, and how these factors influence clinical outcomes.