Who benefits most from expectancy effects? A combined neuroimaging and antidepressant trial in depressed older adults

Sigal Zilcha-Mano, Meredith L. Wallace, Patrick J. Brown, Joel Sneed, Steven P. Roose, Bret R. Rutherford

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Depressed patients’ expectations of improvement drive placebo effects in antidepressant clinical trials, yet there is considerable heterogeneity in the magnitude of expectancy effects. The present study seeks to identify those individuals who benefit most from expectancy effects using baseline neuroimaging and cognitive measures. Older adult outpatients diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) participated in a prospective, 8-week clinical trial in which expectancy was experimentally manipulated and its effects on depression outcome measured. Based on the literature, we selected a priori 12 cognitive and brain-based variables linked to depression and expectancy, together with demographic variables, and incorporated them into a combined moderator. The combined moderator was developed as a weighted combination of the individual moderators, and was used to identify individuals who benefited most from expectancy effects. The combined moderator was found to predict differential change in depression severity scores between the high- vs. low-expectancy groups with a medium-size effect (Spearman effect size: 0.28). While at the sample level no expectancy effect was found, the combined moderator divided older adults with MDD into those who did and those who did not improve as the result of expectancy manipulation, with those benefiting from the manipulation showing greater processing speed, executive function, and frontostriatal white matter tract integrity. The findings suggest that it is possible to identify a subgroup of older adult individuals with MDD for whom expectancy manipulation results in greater antidepressant treatment response, supporting a precision medicine approach. This subgroup is characterized by distinct cognitive dysfunction and neuroimaging impairments profiles.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number475
JournalTranslational Psychiatry
Issue number1
StatePublished - 15 Sep 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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