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Explained: The science behind Placebo Effect and how to put it to good use.

Behavioral science sheds new light on how placebos can be used as medicine and produce real outcomes in real patients.
ImageNewristics Image30 October 2020

Placebos are not simply a nuisance in clinical trials but a valuable tool

The placebo effect is well known by now: If a person is given an inert treatment, say, a pill, and is told it provides pain relief, that person will report a reduction in perceived pain despite there being no active ingredients. While this phenomenon was traditionally treated as an irritant variable in clinical trials, there has been renewed interest in recent years.

Many researchers view placebos not as a nuisance, but as a valuable tool. In fact, the Program in Placebo Studies and Therapeutic Encounters is a research center at Harvard University with the central goal of advancing our understanding of placebos and their potential applications.

What if patients are fully aware they are taking a placebo? 


There is a lesser-known subfield within this vein of research—non-deceptive placebo effects. This phenomenon, also known as open-label placebo effects, occurs when patients know they are being administered an inert treatment, yet still experience improved clinical outcomes.

While this stream of research is still burgeoning, it has been documented in irritable bowel syndrome, chronic lower back pain, depression, ADHD, rhinitis, and cancer-related fatigue. The mechanisms that determine the extent of non-deceptive placebos' efficacy aren’t clear, but it’s thought that they retrieve a pharmacological memory, which acts as a trigger to previously conditioned responses.

Put simply, while our conscious minds might be aware that we’re taking a sugar pill, our unconscious mind receives environmental signals, such as the pill and the clinical environment it is being consumed, to determine a response.

In a recent study, participants in the testing group were administered a nasal spray they were told had no active ingredients but would help reduce their negative feelings only if they thought it would. Interestingly, these participants exhibited less emotional distress when viewing emotionally negative images. The reduced distress was verified using two measures: self-report from participants and electroencephalography that measured the neural markers.*

Ethical concerns about the use of placebo unbeknownst to patients

The ethics surrounding the use of placebo is a prickly issue. The thought of prescribing an inactive treatment unbeknownst to the patient can deeply erode the doctor-patient relationship. However, non-deceptive placebos theoretically remediate the bulk of the concern because doctors can maintain transparency with patients. While one survey found support for non-deceptive placebos among patients, the reasons for it and the extent of its application varied, indicating this is a likely hurdle that will have to be addressed before it can be brought mainstream.

The mind-body relationship has the potential for better health outcomes

Although there is much to be known about the conditions and extent to which the self-deceptive placebo effect holds, it serves as a powerful testament to the depth of human perception. While people like to think they are conscious, rational mind is the primary driver of their behavior, the non-deceptive placebo effect illustrates human perception is rooted in the unconscious and the complexity of the mind-body relationship.

*You can find the full article here.


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