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Feeling Is Believing
Latin for “I shall please,” the placebo takes many forms, the most common of which are the sugar pill, the saline injection, and distilled water. There are even placebo surgeries wherein patients are anesthetized, cut open, and stitched up to look as if they have had surgical interventions, even though they haven’t. The belief and expectation that a treatment will heal produces in many patients genuine feelings of relief. In some patients, there is even physical evidence of a benefit.

Doctors and researchers first discovered in 1931 that the placebo effect was a useful prop for better understanding the safety and efficacy of medicines in development. It was well known that some patients would say that they felt better at the very suggestion that they were being given a remedy. Researchers trying to measure the effects of a drug called sanocrysin on patients with tuberculosis wanted to control for this anomaly. Their solution was to give patients a glass of distilled water and tell them they were drinking sanocrysin. Ever since, placebo-controlled, double-blind studies have been embraced by the medical profession as a standard way of evaluating drugs in clinical trials.

But what has long puzzled researchers is whether the sense of healing that some patients feel when given a sugar pill is a function of human biology or psychology. It turns out that it’s both. New research indicates that in cases of maladies like chronic pain, asthma, and depression, a person’s expectation of healing sets off a chain reaction of neurochemical changes in the body that can alleviate physical symptoms.

As Groopman writes of Ted Kaptchuk’s placebo work at Harvard Medical School, “a change in mind-set can alter neurochemistry, both in a laboratory setting and in the clinic. When we are patients, suffering from pain and debility, we look to our doctors and nurses for the words and gestures that reinforce our belief in medicine’s power and solidify our expectation that we may benefit from an intervention. Recent research shows just how catalytic those neurochemical changes can be.”

Groopman writes that “belief and expectation – the key elements of hope – can block pain by releasing the brain’s endorphins and enkephalins, mimicking the effects of morphine” and can affect “fundamental physiological processes like respiration, circulation, and motor function.” As Groopman notes, hope can trigger a placebo effect whose biology “can be imagined as a domino effect, a chain reaction in which each link makes improvement more likely.”

Research supporting the biological basis of the placebo effect has been appearing with greater frequency in peer-reviewed journals like Science, Nature, and the New England Journal of Medicine and in nearly all of the leading specialty journals in the depression and pain treatment field.

One of the definitive analyses of the placebo effect’s role in treating depression remains a 1998 meta-analysis – a study that reviews previous studies in search of themes and conclusions – by Irving Kirsch and Guy Sapirstein called “Listening to Prozac but Hearing Placebo: A Meta-Analysis of Antidepressant Medication,” which appeared in Prevention and Treatment. Deciphering the data on the subject, Kirsch and Sapirstein discovered, suggests that the placebo effect might account for up to a third of the clinical benefit of modern antidepressants.

The analysis raises an obvious question: might more clinical benefit be achieved if the placebo effect could be harnessed and directed? And given the physical, emotional, and economic cost of depression, why isn’t the government funding more research on the placebo effect’s potential role in treating it?

Pain is the object of most placebo-effect studies, many of which use brain imaging to compare and correlate the biological activity produced by opiates like morphine with treatments that stimulate the placebo effect. One such study appeared in the Feb. 20, 2004, issue of Science, describing work done by the University of Michigan’s Tor Wager (now at Columbia University) and colleagues from Princeton University, Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin, and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at the University of Michigan. The team of researchers discovered in two functional magnetic-resonance imaging experiments that placebo analgesia is related to decreased brain activity in pain-sensitive brain regions, including the thalamus, insula, and anterior cingulate cortex.

The researchers also observed increased brain activity in the prefrontal cortex when pain – or pain relief – was anticipated, which would seem to offer some evidence that placebos alter the experience of pain. In July 2002, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that found that patients who underwent a placebo surgical procedure instead of a type of arthroscopic surgery did just as well as patients who actually received the surgery.

The importance of these and other recent findings is twofold. First, they show that more researchers and scientific publications are taking seriously the placebo effect. Second, it is clear that researchers are now seeking to go well beyond correlation studies, instrumental as they are for defining the broad reach of the placebo effect. The new goal of placebo-effect researchers is to establish and identify a direct cause-and-effect link between the placebo effect and physical healing in a wide variety of diseases.

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