New research into the placebo effect
New research into the mystifying presence and power of the placebo effect has uncovered some very interesting information.
As you probably know, a placebo effect occurs when we get better from a treatment that we hope or believe will work, but that is actually inactive. A sugar pill presented as an effective treatment for any condition can result in substantial improvement even though there is no reason to believe that sugar is medicinally effective.
This is a phenomenon that has puzzled doctors and scientists for many years. It is very common in most areas of medicine and can be seen very markedly in clinical research.
When testing a new treatment, it is almost always compared against a placebo medication. Study volunteers do not know whether they are receiving the fake medicine or the real one and in order for the new drug to be deemed effective, it has to be shown to work better than the placebo.
Although it may seem as though the group taking the real medicine would stick out very quickly and obviously from those taking the fake drug, many people still feel better just taking the placebo.
Until recently, the placebo effect has been explained as a psychological reaction. We believe something will work and so we simply believe that we feel better. However, a new study conducted at the University of Michigan has found that the power of the placebo goes deeper than that.
This study showed that simply anticipating that medication will work, actually triggers the brain’s endorphin system. In this study, health volunteers signed up to go through a pain challenge. Over a course of time they were submitted to varying levels of painful stimuli and at certain points were told that they were receiving a medicine to ease their pain.
Using positron emission topography (PET) imaging, researchers found that when the volunteers were told they were getting pain medicine, their brain dispatched its own opioid endorphins to block pain receptors in certain areas of the brain and caused the volunteers to feel better.
During this study, researchers learned that the intensity of pain reduction was measurable and gradual – as they increased pain intensity over the course of time, the naturally occurring pain fighters increased their action in the brain.
Although other studies have hinted at a physical reaction to placebo, this was the first study to pinpoint a specific brain chemistry reaction, which creates a pain-related placebo effect. It clearly identifies a mind-body connection.
While more research is definitely needed in this field to learn how placebo effect would work in non-pain related problems such as depression or anxiety, it is an exciting first step toward understanding this widespread phenomenon.
Some things we do know about placebo is that it is more likely to occur if the person has a positive attitude and truly believes a treatment will work. An enthusiastic doctor can also influence the extent of a placebo response.
Although all of this is interesting, I still caution against simply promoting placebos as treatments. Although this response may be useful to augment effective treatment, it can be dangerous to replace effective therapy with a placebo in situations where there is a serious or life-threatening illness. Even if the person feels better, he or she may still die sooner than if using an effective treatment.
Also, placebo effect generally does not last indefinitely. Particularly in psychiatry, placebo effects are generally short lived, do not eliminate all symptoms and do not lead to a lasting improvement in ability to function.