The placebo effect — the idea that a treatment works because a patient believes it does — has long been a footnote to the work of finding ways to counteract disease. Some physicians have dismissed placebos as mere hokum, a trick of the mind. But researchers have found that in some people, placebos elicit similar responses in the brain to actual drug treatments. In one experiment, researchers using a PET scanner found that the brain activity in test subjects who received placebos and reported less pain mirrored that of those who received actual treatment for their pain.
As Erik Vance writes in “Why Nothing Works,” published in the July/August 2014 issue of Discover magazine, the work suggests we possess an “inner pharmacy” of some sort that, if harnessed correctly, could be used as a complement to traditional treatments.
But as Vance’s overview of recent research on the topic shows, it’s complicated. A placebo’s impact is not universal. Certain individuals — and certain conditions (pain and depression, for example) — seem to respond better than others to placebos. Researchers think that something in a person’s physiological makeup makes him more sensitive to placebos, while others feel little or no impact.
There are ethical considerations, too, since it’s considered wrong to mislead volunteers participating in a study. But there are ways to navigate this thicket. In one small study, researchers gave placebos to a group of people with irritable bowel syndrome — after telling them that the pills were just placebos; a second group received no treatment. Surprisingly, many more of those who received the placebos reported improvements in their symptoms than did people in the no-treatment group.
Patient, heal thyself? For some, it may be a real possibility.