The Power of the placebo

The placebo effect
The placebo effect

The placebo effect has to be one of the strangest phenomenon known to science. It is a measurable effect that is produced by a placebo pill or treatment that has been designed not to have any effect.

Placebos are often used in scientific experiments to measure the effect of a specific medicine or treatment. A placebo can be for example a sugar pill or an injection of salted water, or fake surgical procedure, all of which are designed have no effect on the patient and so can be compared to the medicine or treatment being tested.

The problem however, is that even a sugar pill or fake treatment can elicit a genuine response in the patient. Since the pill or treatment hasn’t been designed to produce the effect, then any effect being reported must be down to the patient. Sometimes it is the expectation of a benefit that leads to the effect. The patient thinks that he or she should feel better after taking the pill or treatment and sometimes genuinely does feel better and so reports that they do. This has been shown to be the case in some instances, but the placebo effect has also been shown to produce measurable biological responses.

In addition, even when the patients are aware that they are given a placebo, the placebo effect is still observed. The size of the placebo effect can be correlated to the perception of the invasiveness or scale of the treatment. A small pill producing a smaller response than a larger pill and so on. These responses are real and are not caused by the placebo treatment or pills. It therefore stands to reason that they must be caused by the patient. If this is the case, then the patient has triggered a biological response by using the power of suggestion alone. That’s quite a powerful idea, and one that is now being studied in numerous labs around the world.

It will be interesting over the next number of years to see where, and how far this research goes, and if the relationship between our mind and thoughts can be harnessed to positive medical effect.