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aamen's picture

Placebo Effect

I thought last week’s discussion touched on some really interesting points as well.  The placebo effect and use of placebos in general is something that’s come up in a lot of different classes I’ve taken here – in one class we were actually just discussing it a couple of weeks ago.  I don’t have the exact articles that we were looking at, but basically the idea was that placebo drugs are far more effective than we’ve tended to think in the past.  Obviously we all know that when a new drug is becoming approved it must be shown to lead to significantly greater improvement than a placebo condition.  These articles were looking at one specific drug that was approved after it was shown to be something like 60% more effective than a placebo pill.  However, in the new research, the experimenters were testing the effects of changing the appearance (color, size, etc) of the placebo pill to make it look more ‘legitimate’, and then found that the efficacy of the placebo pill increased by something like half.  They also hypothesized that people in the placebo condition might realize that they’re in this condition based on the fact that they don’t feel the expected side effects of the real drug, so they created placebo pills that would mimic the side effects of the real drug.  With these pills they found an even greater increase in efficacy, so that the effects of the real drug were no longer significant.  Of course, we talked in class about the idea that a placebo pill (even if it’s just salt) is something, and might in itself affect the body in some way.  It seems to me that whatever they were doing to the pill to make it cause side effects might have other effects on the body as well.


I also wanted to say in response to Kara’s question of whether placebos can work by causing the brain mimic drug action via endogenous chemicals that I know at least that placebos that have lead to pain relief have been shown to cause activation of the endogenous opioid system – so yes, in that case, the placebo does seem to be doing the same thing that a drug would, just using the brain’s own chemicals, which seems healthier to me anyways (I’m not sure why…).  If it’s the case that the brain contains the resources to fix physical problems by itself, what I’d really like to know is how we might be able to understand and use that so that we don’t have to resort to ‘tricking’ people in a sense with placebo pills.


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