The placebo effect is a phenomenon in which patients who are given an inactive treatment (e.g., inert pill) show a perceived or actual improvement in a medical condition. Placebo effects in clinical trials have been investigated for many years especially because placebo treatments often serve as the control arm of randomized clinical trial designs. Recent observations suggest that placebo effects may be modified by genetics. This observation has given rise to the term “placebome,” which refers to a group of genome-related mediators that affect an individual’s response to placebo treatments. In this study, we conduct a network analysis of the placebome and identify a placebome module in the comprehensive human interactome using a seed-connector algorithm. The placebome module is significantly enriched with neurotransmitter signaling pathways and brain-specific proteins. We validate the placebome module using a large cohort of the Women’s Genome Health Study (WGHS) trial and demonstrate that the placebome module is significantly enriched with genes whose SNPs modify the outcome in the placebo arm of the trial. To gain insights into placebo effects in different diseases and drug treatments, we use a network proximity measure to examine the closeness of the placebome module to different disease modules and drug target modules. The results demonstrate that the network proximity of the placebome module to disease modules in the interactome significantly correlates with the strength of the placebo effect in the corresponding diseases. The proximity of the placebome module to molecular pathways affected by certain drug classes indicates the existence of placebo-drug interactions. This study is helpful for understanding the molecular mechanisms mediating the placebo response, and sets the stage for minimizing its effects in clinical trials and for developing therapeutic strategies that intentionally engage it.


Rui-Sheng Wang, Kathryn T. Hall, Franco Giulianini, Dani Passow, Ted J. Kaptchuk, Joseph Loscalzo


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