Sick? Try This Pill It Won't Have Any Effect Whatsoever. or How the Strange Power of Placebos Could Save the NHS Millions and Still Cure Illnesses

Daily Mail (London), October 16, 2007 | Go to article overview

Sick? Try This Pill It Won't Have Any Effect Whatsoever. or How the Strange Power of Placebos Could Save the NHS Millions and Still Cure Illnesses


Byline: JEROME BURNE

STICKING needles randomly into your body is almost as good as realacupuncture when it comes to back pain, according to a new study published lastmonth.

Random needles are also just as good at improving the quality of life forCrohn's disease patients, another study found.

Why is this so? Sceptics say it's because complementary medicine is nothingmore than a placebo.

A placebo is a treatment that has no active ingredient but makes the patientfeel better simply because they trust the person administering it and believethe treatment will help.

The placebo effect has long been used by conventional doctors as a label todiscredit alternative treatments.

However, in the past few years there has been a revolution in scientists'understanding of placebosindeed, some experts now believe they could even replace treatments such asanti- depressants.

'The placebo effect tells us that we have a powerful natural ability to controlpain and produce other beneficial effects,' says Professor Irvine Kirsch,psychologist and expert on placebos at the University of Hull. 'We should beusing this to boost the response to drugs and other treatments.'

The medical interest in placebos has been stirred partly by brain scanningtechnology which has meant scientists can see what happens when you take aplacebo. Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that placebos can bringabout genuine physiological changes in people suffering from pain, depressionand even Parkinson's disease.

BUT the medical speciality that benefits the most from the placebo effect ispain treatment. It seems that believing you are getting pain relief when youaren't really can make a big difference to how it feelsresearchers have found that a specific region in the brain responds to aplacebo by releasing natural morphine-like painkillers.

Besides pain, depression has also long been known to respond well to placebos.

Using brain scans neuroscientists have found that both placebos andantidepressants increased activity in the frontal cortexthe thinking and planning part of the brainand reduced activity in areas linked with emotions, and therefore reducingdepression.

According to Dr George Lewith, head of the Complementary Medicine ResearchGroup at the University of Southampton, the placebo effect counts for about 70per cent of the benefit of therapies for pain and depression.

It's not just pills and needles that provide a placebo effect. In a study of agroup of Parkinson's patients, half had stem cells implanted in their brain toboost their low levels of the brain chemical dopamine, the other half had'sham' surgery, undergoing an operation but having nothing implanted.

A year later those who wrongly believed they had received the stem cells showedas much improvement as those who had received them. Some forms of placebo workbetter than others.

Leading the way in this research is Professor Ted Kaptchuk, of Harvard MedicalSchool. …

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