Open-label placebo treatment does not enhance cognitive abilities in healthy volunteers


The use of so-called ‘smart drugs’ such as modafinil to improve cognitive performance has recently attracted considerable attention. However, their side effects have limited user enthusiasm. Open-label placebo (OLP) treatment, i.e., inert treatments that are openly disclosed to individuals as having no active pharmacological ingredient, has been shown to improve various medical symptoms and conditions, including those related to cognitive performance. OLP treatment could therefore be an exciting alternative to pharmacological cognitive enhancers. Here, we used a randomized-controlled design to investigate the effect of a 21-day OLP treatment on several sub-domains of cognitive performance in N = 78 healthy volunteers. Subjective and objective measures of cognitive performance as well as different measures of well-being were obtained before and after the treatment period. Using a combination of classic Frequentist and Bayesian analysis approaches showed no additional benefit from OLP treatment in any of the subjective or objective measures of cognitive performance. Our study thus highlights possible limitations of OLP treatment in boosting cognitive performance in healthy volunteers. These findings are discussed in the light of expectancy-value considerations that may determine OLP efficacy.

Scientific Reports