When patients view doctors as less trustworthy, it can lead to increased pain and pain-related brain activity, according to a new University of Miami study.
In the study, which was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, participants underwent a series of simulated painful medical procedures with various virtual doctors who seemed more or less trustworthy.
During these medical simulations, participants’ brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Researchers compared brain responses to simulated painful medical procedures (actually painful heat stimulation on the hands) and participants’ assessments of their pain when they were approached by more or less trustworthy virtual doctors.
The doctors in the virtual medical interaction were images of people dressed in a doctor’s white coat, with faces that were created using a computer algorithm to appear more or less trustworthy. The face trust algorithm was previously developed by Alexander Todorov and his colleagues at Princeton University.
“Participants in our study reported increased pain when they received painful thermal stimuli from doctors they perceived as less trustworthy,” the researchers said. In addition to affecting how much pain participants reported during fMRI scans, simulating a painful procedure with less trustworthy doctors was also associated with increased brain activity in brain regions associated with pain, as well as an increased response to a brain biomarker that predicts pain, a neurological sign of pain.