Thursday, November 15, 2012

Healing by Placebo

Placebos, as it turns out, are actually quite effective in some cases.
Placebos, as it turns out, are actually quite effective in some cases.
Image: Shutterstock
If you don’t believe in the healing powers of the mind, just take a look at the placebo effect. Patients suffering from serious medical conditions have been treated with sugar pills, saline injections, and other placebo treatments—and despite the fact that they had no actual medicinal power, the patients’ conditions often improved.

In traditional research, placebos are used to allow researchers to objectively determine whether their methods and treatments are effective. Using a placebo ensures that the results are pure and unbiased. But lately the studies have switched from using placebos as the “no result” medicine to the treatment in question.

And those studies are finding that placebos are, in fact, very effective. Researchers argue that this is because rather than providing the active ingredients, they instead give the patient hope and therefore the brainpower to trick the body into feeling better. And it’s a method that has been used by doctors and specialists for years. There isn’t always a treatment available, and sometimes the simple prescription for vitamins or otherwise common system boosters can help.

The dominant theory with placebos is that patients want to feel better, or think they should feel better—so they do. But neuroscientists these days are interested in finding out more about the actual neural pathways that contribute to the placebo effect.

Bendetti says the real placebo effect is actual  psychobiological phenomena in the brain.
Bendetti says the real placebo effect is actual
psychobiological phenomena in the brain.
Image: Shutterstock
Fabrizio Bendetti, author of The Patient’s Brain says that the real placebo effect is not simply wishful thinking or simply feeling better when you’re not. They are instead actual psychobiological phenomena occurring in the brain that really do create measurable biological changes. Our brain transmits expectations to our body, which reacts in turn.

But there is still much research to be done. Patients sometimes respond differently to different placebo treatments and some patients seem to be “immune” to placebo treatment altogether. And some diseases and illnesses don’t seem to be affected at all, such as Alzheimer’s. On the other hand, Parkinson’s patients are generally very receptive to placebos.

There’s also the question of morality that has to come up here. I am certainly a fan of my body’s own self-healing, but is it right for doctors to prescribe a placebo and tell patients that they’re getting medicine? What do you think?
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