Can Your Brain Cure the Pain? Surprising Result of TV Experiment Testing Placebos against Drugs

The Mirror (London, England), October 4, 2018 | Go to article overview

Can Your Brain Cure the Pain? Surprising Result of TV Experiment Testing Placebos against Drugs


Byline: SUSAN GRIFFIN

If you suffer from chronic pain, you are not alone. Every year, the NHS spends over PS400million on painkillers, and as a nation we swallow almost five billion overthe-counter capsules.

So how would you feel if you were told that you had the potential to ease, if not cure, your pain by the power of thought alone?

In tonight's BBC Horizon show, The Placebo Experiment: Can My Brain Cure My Body?, Dr Michael Mosley investigates how much relief is down to the pills, and how much is due to your brain.

He also oversees a placebo trial, one of the largest of its kind ever held, with surprising results.

Dr Mosley says: "I'm a big fan of trying to find alternatives to medication. There's a move towards what I'd call de-prescribing, where we've decided there are possibly better ways to go than just pumping in more and more pills."

"There's something really interesting and appealing about the idea that you can find a way of unlocking some magical trick within your own brain - abilities you weren't even aware you had."

What is a placebo?

A placebo is a substance that has no therapeutic value, which is used as a control in drugs trials.

Dr Mosley explains: "For example, if you're testing a new back pain pill, some of the volunteers will receive the actual pill and others will receive the placebo, but they won't know which one they're taking. Then you follow them and see who does better."

In the Placebo Experiment, there is a twist, as all the volunteers are given placebos.

Some of them experience a positive response, and continue to do so even after the truth has been revealed. Dr Mosley says: "People think only the weak-willed, foolish or ignorant will respond to a placebo, whereas we know none of these things are true."

The experiment

Oxford University placebo expert Dr Jeremy Howick designed a study for Dr Mosley to see if back pain could be cured with the power of the mind. Dr Mosley says: "We invited more than 100 people from Blackpool -- a town where one in five people is blighted by back problems -- to be examined by doctors.

Asevere told has for "Among the volunteers was 71-year old Jim, who suffers from a degenerative disease that, coupled with his severe back pain, makes walking a real challenge. He told me: 'I'm not looking for miracles. It would be nice even if the pain went away a little bit.'"

People were told they might get a real pill or a placebo, but they all were given fakes. Three weeks later, they were asked how they felt. Dr Mosley says: "Jim told me that the pills were working brilliantly.

"When I first met Jim, he was unable to stand, and taking large amounts of morphine to control his pain. Now, he was a different pain me he man. I asked him which he preferred, my pills or the quit his morphine?

"He said: 'I got rid of the morphine and kept taking your pills.' The main characteristic of people who respond to placebos is that they are open to new experiences."

The physical effects

There is a degree of mystery as to how a placebo works, but physical changes in the brain can be measured. "What's believed to happen is if you think you're getting a real pill, the brain releases chemicals, which naturally suppress pain," says Dr Mosley. …

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