Here is a fascinating piece of work from Furmark et al., showing that placebo treatment of stress in subjects with social anxiety disorder (reflected by reducted amygdala activity during public speaking) was successful only in individuals with particular forms of serotonin transporter and tryptophan hydroxylase genes. This demonstrates a link between genetically controlled serotonergic modulation of amygdala activity and placebo-induced anxiety relief. The experiments were done in the context of a study evaluating a potential anti-anxiety drug and matching placebo provided by GlaxoSmithKline.
Placebo may yield beneficial effects that are indistinguishable from those of active medication, but the factors underlying proneness to respond to placebo are widely unknown. Here, we used functional neuroimaging to examine neural correlates of anxiety reduction resulting from sustained placebo treatment under randomized double-blind conditions, in patients with social anxiety disorder. Brain activity was assessed during a stressful public speaking task by means of positron emission tomography before and after an 8 week treatment period. Patients were genotyped with respect to the serotonin transporter-linked polymorphic region (5-HTTLPR) and the G-703T polymorphism in the tryptophan hydroxylase-2 (TPH2) gene promoter. Results showed that placebo response was accompanied by reduced stress-related activity in the amygdala, a brain region crucial for emotional processing. However, attenuated amygdala activity was demonstrable only in subjects who were homozygous for the long allele of the 5-HTTLPR or the G variant of the TPH2 G-703T polymorphism, and not in carriers of short or T alleles. Moreover, the TPH2 polymorphism was a significant predictor of clinical placebo response, homozygosity for the G allele being associated with greater improvement in anxiety symptoms. Path analysis supported that the genetic effect on symptomatic improvement with placebo is mediated by its effect on amygdala activity. Hence, our study shows, for the first time, evidence of a link between genetically controlled serotonergic modulation of amygdala activity and placebo-induced anxiety relief.