Placebo-Response Update: 'New Respect for the Power of Mind'

By Perry, Susan | MinnPost.com, January 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

Placebo-Response Update: 'New Respect for the Power of Mind'


Perry, Susan, MinnPost.com


In the January-February issue of "The Saturday Evening Post," science reporter Sharon Begley has done an excellent and highly readable job of summarizing research on the placebo response.

Much of the research to date on placebos has involved pain. Begley describes several such studies, including a particularly impressive one: a 2004 study involving 180 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee. Half were randomly assigned to receive arthroscopic surgery while the other half received sham surgery, a form of placebo.

Both groups of patients experienced a similar post-surgery reduction in the duration, frequency and intensity of knee pain.

But pain isn't the only physiological reaction stimulated by the placebo response. As Begley notes, placebos have been shown to help treat many other health problems, including angina, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, hypertension, gastric reflux, psoriasis, anxiety and depression.

"As researchers find more and more conditions that respond to placebos, they are gaining new respect for the power of mind," Begley writes. "They are also learning how a belief or expectation can travel from the brain to arthritic knees, asthmatic airways, hypertensive blood vessels, and sites of pain. Understanding these mechanisms holds out the promise of tapping the placebo response more systematically, so more illnesses can be treated not with pills and operations (which almost always come with side effects or other risks) but with the power of the mind."

It's important to point out that evidence in support of the placebo response does not mean that getting well is just a matter of "positive thinking." Nor does it mean that individuals whose symptoms respond to the placebo response aren't really ill. The placebo response is an interesting physiological phenomenon, however, that is increasingly affecting how we develop and evaluate a wide variety of medical treatments. As I've pointed out before in Second Opinion, the placebo effect has pharmaceutical companies worried because many drugs they want to bring on the market fail in head-to-head competitions with placebos. Established drugs also often fare poorly against placebos in follow-up clinical trials.

Several factors involved

The placebo effect often works by stimulating a physiological response in the body -- say, the release of the body's natural painkillers. But another phenomenon, known as the conditioned response (a learned response to a repeated, or conditioned stimulus) can also be involved. …

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