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The placebo effect, not just in your head…

Published on October 21, 2014 at 14:41 / Updated on July 26, 2019 at 12:54

The placebo effect has been recognized by the scientific community for many years now. Whether resulting from taking an inactive tablet or following a futile or inadequate treatment, it can, in the short term, improve certain medical conditions without any explanation as to the reason why. For a long time, it was believed that this effect was simply psychological, that it was all in the patient’s head. Today, some researchers have declared that a placebo might also have physical effects, at the very centre of people’s brains.

The placebo effect is a subjective but authentic one. It occurs in people who follow, unknowingly, a weak or useless treatment, and believe in its efficacy. Studies have demonstrated that up to 30% of patients noted an improvement in their symptoms while taking a placebo, simply because they believed they were doing something positive for their health. The placebo effect is not only conveyed through medication. Any therapeutic gesture, valid or not, contains part of this effect. Let us only think of how kissing a child’s booboo or applying a colourful bandage on it might calm their tears.

Since recognizing the existence of this effect, researchers use it to evaluate the efficacy of medications. Most of the studies necessary in the commercialization of a new medication are conducted using double-blind trials. Double-blind trials incorporate groups of participants in which neither the patient nor the doctor know if the administered product is a medication or a placebo. This leads to an objective opinion on the true efficacy of the studied molecule, by comparing the statistics of both samples. To be marketed, a medication must been proven significantly more efficient than a placebo.

The placebo effect does not only take place in people’s heads. Recent research results demonstrate the occurrence of real physical changes in the brain. In the treatment of pain, the anticipation of relief brought on by taking a tablet can truly alleviate pain because the brain increases its level of endorphins, a natural analgesic produced by our bodies.

Some researchers even believe that we could learn to “domesticate” the response to placebo to help ailing people relieve their pain. They have asked people plagued by chronic pain to take part in the game. Lying down in a magnetic resonance imaging machine, the volunteers were able to observe live images produced by their brains in action. Each of them was asked to imagine the worst kind of pain and the manner in which to alleviate it, while observing how their brain was reacting. With live images of their cerebral reactions, these volunteers realized they had an influence on their perception of pain. After all, pain does not occur in the injured muscle, but in the brain where we interpret the nervous influx coming from the wound.

Our brain is sensitive to anticipation and the placebo effect interferes with what we anticipate. By playing with our perceptions, we could perhaps come to the point where the response to placebo is amplified, thereby allowing people greater relief from pain. Some scientists are already looking into this prospect.

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