Normally, when you get sick, you head down to the hospital and your doctor gives you a prescription for a pill (or pills). You take the pill as the doctor ordered, and after a certain number of days, you’ll feel better. That one little pill – you hope that it (and it usually does) makes you feel better. What if that pill was nothing but a Tic Tac, though?
The Placebo effect has been known for ages, and has always been considered hugely important in the history of medicine. A Cambridge professor, Nicholas Humphrey speculates that the placebo effect may have been used in applications longer than most people realize.
“The Stonehenge may have actually been a kind of placebo hospital – a place which people came in order to receive faith-receive healing. The people believed that they were to touch the stones and through them, absorb, as they believed some magically-potent medicine.”
Earlier this year, a new study was conducted on how the placebo effect alters brain activity. Published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the study was the first to suggest that patients being treated placebos for major depression experienced changes in brain activity that were very similar to those being treated with conventional medicine.
51 patients were assigned to either placebos or one of two antidepressant medications. Medication and placebos were distributed at weekly sessions that the patients participated in. Over the course of nine weeks, it was discovered that the placebo responders and the medication responders had changes in the same brain region. While Placebo responders showed more activity in the prefrontal cortex, the medication responders showed less. It is notable though, that the decrease in depression from placebo respondents was in line with the medication respondents.
This study proves that something happens in the patient’s brain when a placebo is consumed. The brain causes the body to make up for the potent substances included in medication. According to Dr. J. Alexander Bodkin, director of the clinical psychopharmacology research program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass, experts believe that the placebo effect accounts for as much as 100 percent of the efficacy of medication.
The research suggests that placebos are not merely “nothing,” but rather, an unknown, immeasurable variable as to why willpower and belief in a small pill can create such influence on the body to actively compensate for medicine and heal itself.
Further research must be done to know the future implications that placebos might have in medicinal use, and how amazingly the brain really works. With placebos being given out every day to patients and in clinical trials, it is only a matter of years before we can fully understand and fully utilize the placebo effect. It still leaves the leading experts stumped how Placebos work the way they do, but the real mystery would be not how they work, but rather why they work.