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How Powerful Is the Placebo Effect?

You might not be able to put a price on happiness, but new research suggests that you may be able to put one on miracle medicine. In a recent study, 12 people with Parkinson's disease were given two identical saline injections (ie. placebos) but were told that one of the medications cost $1,500 USD and the other cost $100 USD. The first injection produced a two-fold improvement in motor functioning compared with the second, and both showed improvement from the patients' baseline numbers. The researchers suggest that since Parkinson's patients have decreased dopamine production as the disease worsens, the simple belief that a new medication might help was enough to prompt their brains to produce more dopamine. Afterwards, two-thirds of the volunteers who showed the most improvement said that they believed the more expensive injection would provide the greatest benefit.

The good and bad of placebos:

  • In some cases, administering placebos has caused a "reverse placebo effect" in which patients experience side effects not associated with any medication.
  • Clinical trials typically compare new medications with those already in use, not new medications with placebos.
  • Some patients, notably those suffering from depression, ADHD, and irritable bowel syndrome, have shown improvement even when told that they are receiving a placebo.

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