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Healing is Believing: The Placebo Effect

Sangeeta Iyer

Upon speaking to a student from the School of Social Work who worked at a local elementary school in Philadelphia, I was amazed to learn about the number of young children who are taking depressants in order to control their hyperactivity disorders. One child in particular caught my ear. This boy was seven years old and was taking a dosage of Ritalin equal to that of a 35 year old man because his doctor did not feel that the regular dosage was appropriate for his condition. Later that day, searching for a topic, I found that a group of scientists are searching for drugs that can penetrate the blood-brain barrier so that neurological diseases like epilepsy. (1)

Reading these cases, I became disturbed by how physicians and researchers are relying heavily on pharmacological treatments to disorders and developing new method of administering these drugs rather than researching the alternatives. If we consider the brain to equal behavior, then we need not alter the neurochemistry of an individual in order to get them to behave properly. There should be healing factors already present to counteract the inability of one transmitter to reach a receptor, for example. Eastern herbal medicines and alternative healing practices like homeopathy, acupuncture, and meditation, which do not direcly change the neurochemistry of an individual, are only now being researched formally. This is due to the growing number of illness whom are developing resistances to common drugs. However, all these treatments are similar to one known as the placebo effect.

Placebo is any treatment that is devoid of specific actions on the patient's symptoms or diseases that, somehow, can cause an effect upon that patient. (2) Usually this treatment is used as a control to an experiment. A placebo can be a "sugar-pill" or fake surgery/therapy can even be effective. (3) As in any research, the greater the difference between the results of the control group, whom was given the placebo, and the experimental group, whom was given the actual medication, would mean the greater pharmacological effectiveness of the drug being studied. However, in recent years, the effect of the placebo is becoming as great as that of a given medication.

The placebo effect is when a measurable or observable effect is noticed on a person or group of persons that have been administered this innocuous treatment. It is believed that the placebo effect is psychological, due to a delusion on the part of the subject that the treatment will work. (3) A person's beliefs and homes about a treatment, combined with their gullibility, seem to have a significant biochemical effect. Sensory experiences such as scent and sight as well as thoughts have been known to cause an effect in an person's neurochemistry and other biological systems. This effect suggests that a hopeful outlook on treatment can effect physical well-being.

Positive results from a placebo are being noticed in patients being treated for a variety of disorders from depression (4) to those who have enlarged prostates (5). Especially in the case of depression, researchers found that 50% of the drug effect was due to the placebo response. The researchers continued to test the theory, and found that just the promise of future treatment did not have any affect on depression levels, but that combination with the pill did. (5)

The amazing thing about the placebo is that it is not like any medication it does not affect the chemistry of the brain directly, rather combined with a positive outlook about treatment, neurochemistry of the brain is changed. Consider the economical benefits of such a treatment. The person need never pay for expensive drugs such as Prozac or Zoloft in order to treat their ailments, for a spoon full of sugar and some faith was able to cause the same effect.

However, this proposal does leave the door wide open for criticism. It would be an open door to quackery (3). Also, the placebo never directly affects the problem as well. For example, although the placebo was able to help make patients with enlarged prostates feel better, it was found prostates that were treated with the desired medication shrank more than 21% but placebo prostrates grew about 8.4%. However, the pain during urination and the weak flow was not experienced by the placebo group, suggesting a positive effect. (5) Because the placebo does not directly affect a specific condition, it is providing "false hope," according to some physicians. (6) Patients with serious illnesses such as brain tumors that can be saved if they receive certain medications will overlook them in order to try the power of the placebo. The ethics of when it is being given and to whom has to be considered. The placebo's power lies not in its ability to cure an illness but to change a person's perception of an illness.

The power of the placebo and its effects on the human body call to question the power of the mind and general medical practice today. The power of a thought, although delusional, has the ability to create physical changes in the body. To diminish painful symptoms that would otherwise need expensive medications. Why is this type of treatment not cared to be prescribed as often? Why is it being overlooked by medical practicioners throughout the nation even though it provides measurable results just as any experimental drug?

Our society has become to drug dependent. Doctors are becoming quick to prescribe antibiotics as a cure-all to their patients. How many people can say that they have never been prescribed an antibiotic when seeing a physician? Rather it is impossible now-a-days to escape without having taken one drug. In an age where the brain is so revered for its power to control the functions of the body, its natural ability is being overlooked. It is being supplemented by outside chemicals. The brain has the power to not to run many different processes at one time but also to mend any conditions that will impede it from performing well. The placebo effect renews the fact that the brain is not dependent upon outside medications in order to help a patient function properly. The chemistry of the brain need not be affected externally in order to see physical results. Internal desire and sometype of inert input was able to perform the same effect.

The placebo effect is still being widely criticized by physicians and researchers alike, only because it is based upon an immeasurable variable, faith. Stating that it is a form of deception, it is still not being as significantly researched as some drugs.

This is a rather quick and biased view of the placebo effect. The problem that was encountered when researching is that, there is not anything extremely concrete about the placebo as to each subject and test, the placebo results deviate. In addition, what could be a viable control to a placebo test. Western researchers are still baffled by the healing abilities of alternative treatments, and therefore, do not approach the study of them as greatly, often seeing them as a threat. I believe that the placebo effect can offer great knowledge into the powers of the brain as if behavior is altered, the brain must have been as well. This effect can offer insights into reduced yet just as effective treatments for individuals with ADHD or prostates. It is a form of treatment that should not fall to the wayside.

WWW Sources

1)LSU Scientist Says New Drug Will Save Brain Cells Attacked By Neurological Injury Or Disease, A short article quickly explaining one researchers hope to find a drug with small enough molecules which can penetrate the blood-brain barrier. This type of drug would be more effective in treating such neurological conditions as epilepsy and Alzheimers.

2)Placebo Effect: The Power of the Sugar Pill, Interesting article which was written by two researchers of the placebo effect. They performed a study to understand how the placebo effect was a conditioned reflex similar to the salivating of Pavlov's dogs.

3)Skeptic's Dictionary: The Placebo Effect, Good reference site on types of placebo and the function it serves. In addition, it highlights quotes the opinions of different physicians.

4)Placebo Effect Accounts for Fifty Percent of Improvement in Depressed Patients Taking Antidepressants, Written in 1996, it is a summarization of a lecture given by two physicians who found that the placebos had a great effect in the improvement of their patient's health.

5)Placebo Effect Lasts for Years, Study Says, Short article from the Associated Press in which a two year test on a drug to reduce enlarged prostates showed that the placebo was extremely effective in reducing symptoms and pain.

6)The Placebo Effect Involves Deception, A critique of a number of books supporting the placebo effect and studies done on the subject. It argues that the ethics of studies are not being overlooked and the patient's rights are being forgotten.

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