The Placebo Effect
By Shani Asokan Ceylon Today Features
The mind is a powerful thing. Sometimes, the mind alone can have a powerful influence on the body. This is seen in some cases where the mind tricks the body into believing that a certain treatment has a therapeutic effect even though the said treatment has no such effect. This is known as the placebo effect. It is often used in medical research to help doctors and scientists understand the physiological and psychological effects of medicines they are testing.
What is it?
The placebo effect is a phenomenon in which a person experiences a benefit generated in response to the administration of a treatment or substance even though it has no known medical effect. The treatment can be a pill or injection that looks exactly like the actual medical treatment but in reality it is either a sugar pill or saline solution. The terms ‘placebo’ and ‘placebo effect’ are two different things; placebo refers to the treatment (pill or injection) and the placebo effect refers to the effect generated in response to the treatment.
The expectations of the person being administered the drug can play a significant role in the triggering of the placebo effect. The more the person expects the treatment to work, the higher the chance of seeing real effects occur. In most cases, the people being given the placebo are unaware that they are not getting the actual treatment and instead believe they are recipients of the real thing. In fact, the placebo is designed to look exactly like its medical counterpart.
In medical research
In medical trials, there are generally two groups, one receiving the treatment and the other receiving the placebo. The purpose of doing this is to determine the effectiveness of the new treatment; if the participants in the group receiving the treatment experience significantly better responses to the drug being tested over the placebo group, then this supports the claim for the drug’s effectiveness.
Some people are more likely to respond to placebos that others. It has been found that people with higher levels of dopamine (a brain chemical) are more likely to experience the placebo effect than others. By comparing the group receiving the treatment to the placebo group scientists are also able to establish cause and effect; that is, that the administered medication causes a certain outcome.
In psychological experiments, researchers utilize placebos as a fake independent variable and introduce it to one group while the other group is exposed to the real independent variable. The impact of the placebo on the group is then compared to that of the experimental group.
Though the placebos do not contain any real treatment but in most instances researchers have found both physical and psychological effects in participants who have been given the placebo like, changes in heart rate, blood pressure, anxiety levels, pain perception, and fatigue and so on.
One significant advantage in using a placebo is that it eliminates or weakens the effect that expectations may have on the trial. Sometimes scientists may in words or behaviour unknowingly give participants clues on what they expect their behaviour or response to be after administering the drug, which can affect the study. Having a placebo group can help scientists rule these behaviours out as they will generally be common to both groups. Sometimes, scientists may even conduct a double blind test where neither the scientists nor the participants know who has received the placebo and who has received the drug.
Though researchers have established that the placebo effect is real, the causes of it are still a little murky. However, a number of factors may contribute to explanations of this phenomenon.
One such explanation is that is that taking a placebo triggers a person’s endorphins. Endorphins, having a structure similar to opiate painkillers, act as the brains natural painkillers. Researchers have been able to show in experiments that the placebo effect is able to activate the brain’s opiate receptors, just like in the treatment group.
Another explanation is classical conditioning. In some cases a placebo is paired with an actual treatment until it brings about a desired effect. People who are highly motivated and expect the treatment to work become conditioned to thinking that it does work, experiencing the placebo effect. The likelihood of this happening is increased by the physician’s enthusiasm for the treatment to be effective.
Sometimes, a person can experience more side effects or symptoms due to the placebo, such as increased headaches, nausea or dizziness, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘nocebo effect’.
While placebos can affect how a person feels, they cannot necessarily cure or have a significant impact on an underlying illness. Studies have found that placebos have had no major clinical impacts on diseases but have some impacts on perceptions of pain or nausea. Researchers have concluded that in most cases placebos can be used to benefit patients as a small part of their therapeutic treatment plan. It is important to remember that the placebo effect is more to do with perception that actual treatment and must not be considered a cure for any underlying condition.