Placebo Effect


Feed a sick man a dummy pill that he thinks will cure him, and often his health will improve in a similar way to someone taking real drugs. In other words, a bunch of nothing can improve your health. In theory, this is a powerful treatment technique known as the placebo effect. While that proves that the placebo effect is somehow biochemical—and not just a psychological effect—we know practically nothing else about the power of placebo.

Doctors and patients both want to see benefit from a new treatment. To prove that a therapy “really” works, some of the patients are given the fake pill (placebo), and some take the drug. The effect produced by the real drug is then compared to that of the placebo.

The patients and doctors are not told, until the study is over, who took the active drug and who got the placebo. Some ethical concerns arose around giving a placebo treatment to patients without telling them. Yet, such research studies are designed so that all patients eventually become able to use the study medication, even if they do not receive it at first. Also, these studies are carefully reviewed to be sure that the use of a placebo treatment does not create a dangerous situation for a patient. In the end, all patients benefit from placebo studies when the true effect of the treatment are fully understood.

It is important to understand that not all placebo effects are good. Just as some patients improve with the power of positive thinking, some become worse and drop out of research studies because of the side effects of the placebo. Surprisingly, sometimes placebos would even have the same side effects of the tested medications.

In a recent, well-publicized and fascinating study of Parkinson’s Disease (PD), it was discovered that the patients who improved with placebo had changes in their brain that were identical to the changes caused by the actual medication called levodopa; increasing brain dopamine. Although this should have not been the case, patients who got better with placebo had a similar increase in dopamine, identical to what happened in those who were given the drug.

Talk about mind over matter! That is like convincing yourself you can run a 40-yard dash in 4 seconds and then doing it. Similar effects of changes in brain chemistry have been found in studies of pain and depression. When patients in a study of treatment for pain were given pain medications without their knowledge, the benefit was far less than when they were given placebo and they were able to expect a benefit.


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SCIplanet is a bilingual edutainment science magazine published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Planetarium Science Center and developed by the Cultural Outreach Publications Unit ...
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