Many doctors know the story of "Mr. Wright," who was found to
cancer and in 1957 was given only days to live. Hospitalized in Long
Beach, Calif., with tumors the size of oranges, he heard that
scientists had discovered a horse serum, Krebiozen, that appeared to
be effective against cancer. He begged to receive it.
His physician, Dr. Philip West, finally agreed and gave Wright an
injection on a Friday afternoon. The following Monday, the
astonished doctor found his patient out of his "death bed," joking
with the nurses. The tumors, the doctor wrote later, "had melted
like snow balls on a hot stove."
Two months later, Wright read medical reports that the horse
was a quack remedy. He suffered an immediate relapse. "Don't
believe what you read in the papers," the doctor told Wright. Then
he injected him with what he said was "a new super-refined double
strength" version of the drug. Actually, it was water, but again,
the tumor masses melted.
Wright was "the picture of health" for another two months -- until
he read a definitive report stating that Krebiozen was worthless. He
died two days later.
Doctors who know this story dismiss it as one of those strange
tales that medicine cannot explain. The idea that a patient's
beliefs can make a fatal disease go away is too bizarre.
But now scientists, as they learn that the placebo effect is even
more powerful than anyone had been able to demonstrate, are also
beginning to discover the biological mechanisms that cause it to
achieve results that border on the miraculous.
Using new techniques of brain imagery, they are uncovering a host
of biological mechanisms that can turn a thought, belief or desire
into an agent of change in cells, tissues and organs.
They are learning that much of human perception is based not on
information flowing into the brain from the outside world but what
the brain, based on previous experience, expects to happen next.
`Lies that heal'
Placebos are "lies that heal," said Dr. Anne Harrington, a
historian of science at Harvard University. A placebo -- the word is
Latin for "I shall please" -- is typically a sham treatment that a
doctor doles out merely to please or placate anxious or persistent
patients, she said. It looks like an active drug but has no
pharmacological properties of its own.
Until fairly recently, nearly all of medicine was based on placebo
effects, because doctors had little effective medicine to offer.
Through the 1940s, American doctors handed out sugar pills in
shapes and colors in a deliberate attempt to induce placebo
Nowadays, doctors have real medicines to fight disease. But these
treatments have not diminished the power of the placebo.
Doctors in Texas are conducting a study of arthroscopic knee
surgery that uses general anesthesia in which patients with sore,
worn knees are assigned to one of three operations -- scraping out
the knee joint, washing out the joint or doing nothing. …