The brain has an amazing capacity to help the body heal itself. The “placebo effect” was first described in a 1955 medical paper: people given a harmless sugar pill – a “placebo” – will feel less pain if they are first convinced the pill is a medicine that effectively relieves pain. Placebos are effective for a variety of symptoms like depression and stomach ulcers, too.
Since 1962, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required drug makers to prove a new medicine is more effective than a placebo before it will approve the drug for market. For some reason, placebos seem to be more effective than expected in drug trials between 2001-2006, especially for meds targeting the brain and central nervous system. As a result, more new drugs fail to pass FDA approval because they don’t produce results better than sugar pills. Even old standbys like Prozac are proving less effective against placebos than when they were first tested in the 80s.
The increase in placebo effectiveness is significant enough that the NIH is studying the phenomena, funded by big pharmaceutical companies. Wired Magazine has a great article on the increase in placebo effectiveness here.
One study mentioned in the article talks about the placebo effect in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) patients. To be effective, placebos require the patient to have cognitive ability – you have to understand what the pill will do for you before your brain will activate your body’s natural response. A person with AD may have suffered enough brain damage that they’re unable to grasp that concept. As a result, AD patients generally require more painkiller than the average person because the AD patients don’t get the benefit of the placebo “boost” in effectiveness.
I anxiously await the study’s results. It would be wonderful to learn how to make the placebo effect more powerful and let our brains do more to heal us.