Placebo Effect

The Placebo Effect Exists. But How Does it Work?

Placebo | The word “placebo” comes from Latin and means “I would like” or “please.” In the post-study study, it has been shown that most people receiving placebo have an improvement in their symptoms or condition.

The placebo effect is a mysterious subject and has long studied. The research uses placebo-an inactive treatment, such as a sugar pill – in an attempt to understand the real impact of the active drug. The results of the patient group receiving the active drug are then compared with the results of those taking a placebo drug. In this way, researchers can understand how beneficial active medicine is.

The placebo effect is real

Recent research on the placebo effect confirms how powerful it can be – and the benefits of placebo treatment are not just “in your head”. Physiologically measurable changes can be seen in those taking a placebo drug, similar to those seen in people taking effective medications. In particular, blood pressure, cardiac rhythm and blood test results have been shown to improve among subjects who received a placebo drug during various research.

Placebo Effect
fig. 1
Placebo Effect

Of course, not everyone has a therapeutic response to a placebo medicine. If that were the case, we would not need medication. Instead, we could simply discuss the power of autosuggestion. Understanding the reason why people’s condition improves with placebo and other people is not the essential part of placebo research.

Placebo Effect
Placebo Effect

For patients in serious condition, as was the case of the so-called Mr Wright, an American who was ill with lymphatic cancer, it happens that doctors have depleted all the standard treatments and did not get any results. His tumours in the abdomen, his chest and neck continued to wither, and the end seemed closer. The doctors then told Mr Wright about a new and revolutionary anti-cancer drug: Krebiozen. After a few months, the patient left healthy from the hospital. Not long after, however, he found out that the doctors he had put in all his hopes had minted him and that the drug contained no substance that could have helped him. Mr Wright went out in a few days.

Placebo, an equation with many unknowns

As the patient’s mood is important in fighting disease, there is no doubt. But is it possible for active substance-free treatment to do what failed, for example, chemotherapy? Rigorous studies, carried out over the last decades, show that in some cases yes. Sugar pills or physiological serum injections have often resulted in fighting any kind of pain, depression, hypertension, ulcer or Parkinson’s disease. The placebo effect also raises questions about ethics.

Placebo Effect
Despite we strive to understand the world, there are still many mysteries that we can not solve. One of them is the mystery of the placebo phenomenon.

Among the very few who believe that they have come to a certain degree of truth is the Japanese Masaru Emoto, famous for his pictures of water droplets. He proposed a more or less scientific theory, according to which we can influence the fluid of life through the power of words or thoughts. And if we can do that, why can not we change the water in our own body, to make us healthier?

One-third of people respond to placebo treatments

The psychological factors involved, among which the power of thought, speaks the classic definition of the placebo effect, which includes in the lucky patient’s category all those who improve their health or heal by simply believing that a medicine prescribed by a doctor it will do well. But we do not even talk about pills, because the injections or even the white dressing of the doctor or the smell in the cabinet can be associated with at least an apparent improvement in health, provided that the patient links these sensations to regaining a normal state of the body.

Placebo Effect
When Does Your Brain Hit its Peak?

Among the most determined researchers to unravel the tangled elements of the placebo effect include Henry Knowles Beecher, who in the 1950s made over 20 studies on the subject. The professor found that one-third of his patients improved their health after a false therapy, a proportion accepted today by most specialists. There are also challengers who say the effect would be much stronger or, on the contrary, overvalued. They argue that the studies made on this subject are subjective, because in the case of an inert pill used as an analgesic, for example, the patient can not objectively say whether he feels better or not because he was not invented another unit of measure of pain.

Patients recovered after false surgery

Although the psychological mechanisms behind the phenomenon are still unclear, researchers have found some ways to increase the effectiveness of the sugar pill. Professor Dan Ariely and colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, found a financial side of the placebo effect. The researchers underwent a low-shock test with 82 subjects. Half of them received a brochure informing them that they would be given an expensive analgesic, $ 2.50 / pill.

The people were told they would swallow a 10-centimetre drug. Although in reality, both groups received the same placebo, vitamin C, the results were different. In the case of the expensive pill, 85% of patients said they feel pain relief, while in the other group “only” 61% of people said they feel better.

Besides the price, there are other factors that can increase the efficiency of treatment, whether real or false. Studies in Europe and the United States have revealed that two inactive pills have a stronger effect than one and that nicely coloured beautifully sized medicines seem to improve people’s health, comparatively with small, banal-looking ones. Also, complex treatments, such as those injectable or multi-step, give superior results to simple medications.

Surprisingly or not, and in surgery, the placebo effect has a hard word to say. The team of psychologist Cynthia McRae, of the University of Denver, USA, has shown that just thinking that they have been operated can help Parkinson’s patients, whose brains produce dopamine insufficiency, to improve their health. The researchers divided the patients into two groups. Half were, indeed, operated, and brain-doped neurons were implanted in the brain. The rest, however, were cut and sewn back. For a year, specialists closely monitored all patients, and when comparing the results of the two groups they were really shocked: they were almost identical.

What’s happening in the brain?

Positive thinking and physician confidence not only modify the patient’s mood but can cause the body to go through real changes that can lead to health. When the placebo effect manifests in the brain area called the nucleus accumbens, an area associated with rewards, with joy, but also with addiction, there is a spectacular increase in the amount of dopamine neurotransmitter.

Researchers at the University of Michigan in the US have demonstrated that how a patient responds to an inert pill used as an analgesic is linked to how active this nucleus accumbens becomes when the person anticipates that it will benefit. In fact, the University of Michigan has been able to show that the thought of a drug is enough to make the body release its natural endorphins analgesics. But nucleus accumbens is not the only region of the brain involved in the placebo effect.

Doctor Dragos Popa said that “Major changes were observed in the thalamus, in the previously cingulated cortex, the prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex. Each of these areas has its function. For example, the prefrontal cortex, the centre of reason, is activated even when the patient only expects his pain to decrease in intensity as an effect of administering a particular drug. In addition, an entire mechanism that reduces the activity of the brain areas responsible for pain detection is set in motion. “

Although the brain functions in the placebo effect have not yet been fully elucidated, no one can dispute the close link between the sugar pill and dopamine. The studies that will be carried out in the future will have as beneficiaries of Parkinson’s and depression, in which the amount of dopamine in certain regions of the brain is low.
In fact, more studies in the United States have shown that 75% of antidepressant efficacy is due to the placebo effect.

VIDEO: The power of the placebo effect – Emma Bryce

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