Remarkable New Placebo Study (still does not make “The Secret” real)

by Desiree Schell on December 23, 20106 comments

A new study shows that the placebo effect may be even more powerful than we thought.

The emerging field of placebo research has revealed that the body’s repertoire of resilience contains a powerful self-healing network that can help reduce pain and inflammation, lower the production of stress chemicals like cortisol, and even tame high blood pressure and the tremors of Parkinson’s disease. Jumpstarting this network requires nothing more or less than a belief that one is receiving effective treatment — in the form of a pill, a capsule, talk therapy, injection, IV, or acupuncture needle.

Finding effective treatments for symptoms that are primarily subjective, that carry few to no risks or side effects, sounds fantastic. So why aren’t placebos used openly?

The medical establishment’s ethical problem with placebo treatment boils down to the notion that for fake drugs to be effective, doctors must lie to their patients. It has been widely assumed that if a patient discovers that he or she is taking a placebo, the mind/body password will no longer unlock the network, and the magic pills will cease to do their job.

But we may not have to worry about that for long. The new study has found that placebos work even when the patent is fully aware that there is no active ingredient in their “medication.”

In a previous study published in the British Medical Journal in 2008, Kaptchuk and Kirsch demonstrated that placebo treatment can be highly effective for alleviating the symptoms of (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). This time, however, instead of the trial being “blinded,” it was “open.” That is, the volunteers in the placebo group knew that they were getting only inert pills — which they were instructed to take religiously, twice a day. They were also informed that, just as Ivan Pavlov trained his dogs to drool at the sound of a bell, the body could be trained to activate its own built-in healing network by the act of swallowing a pill. Meet the ethical placebo: a powerfully effective faux medication that meets all the standards of informed consent.

Read the whole article by Steve Silberman (including an interview with one of the study’s researchers, Irving Kirsch) at NeuroTribes.

UPDATE: Orac weighs in with his concerns about the study.

For a refresher on the placebo effect, I’ll let Ben Goldacre explain.


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Rob B on December 23, 2010 at 10:35 pm. #

This is my first visit to your blog. On top of this being an interesting article about super uncanny research, I just have to mention that you also have the coolest background image for a blog I’ve ever seen. You must get complimented on the design a lot!

Noah on December 25, 2010 at 1:46 pm. #

Wow, as I was getting halfway through this I found myself asking, “I wonder if this would work even when the patients know what the treatment is?” Then there it was! I love these types of topics by the way.

Since the population that seems to be on the higher suggestibility end of the spectrum have a seemingly uncanny ability to convince themselves into inducing a mental effects such as in those found with the placebo, I kind of thought the outcome would remain the same. Do you think this stems from cognitive dissonance or even distortion? Maybe those in the study could just use a therapist. 😉

Desiree Schell on December 26, 2010 at 6:51 am. #

Rob: Thanks! I’ll make sure Tony reads this comment. 🙂

Noah: Not so fast, sir. Check out the link at the Update. Orac has some good points about the study.

Noah on December 28, 2010 at 1:10 am. #

Ahh, I see. After looking more closely at the study itself, it seems that might be more reporting bias or due to the investigators exaggerating the strength of the evidence for the effects of placebo, and using pseudoscientific terminology. Or how Orac puts it, “people with authority, whom patients tend to believe (namely doctors) also told subjects that evidence showed that these placebo pills activated some sort of “mind-body” mechanism that was described as “powerful.” Subtle woo-ing going on?

Desiree Schell on December 28, 2010 at 7:24 am. #

Possibly. Those kind of statements are dangerous, but they’re also kind of true, to a certain extent. And that’s why we’re all fascinated by the placebo effect. 🙂

Here’s a post on the study from Science-Based Medicine: