Placebos Prove So Powerful Even Experts Are Surprised

Article excerpt

Many doctors know the story of "Mr. Wright," who was found to have 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 serum 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 various shapes and colors in a deliberate attempt to induce placebo responses. 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. …

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