The Placebo Effect May Really Work
The placebo effect – being “cured” by something that really isn’t medicine – seems to work even if you know what you’re getting is fake, researchers say.
The discovery, by University of Colorado-Boulder researchers, was published in The Journal of Pain.
But the investigators also found that the subjects need ample time – four sessions – to believe the placebo works. When participants are told the truth about the treatment after only one session, they don’t show a continued placebo effect.
Senior author Professor Tor Wager, of the university’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, said, “We’re still learning a lot about the critical ingredients of placebo effects. What we think now is that they require both belief in the power of the treatment and experiences that are consistent with those beliefs. Those experiences make the brain learn to respond to the treatment as a real event. “
To conduct the research, investigators applied a ceramic heating element to research subjects’ forearms. They applied enough heat to induce strong pain sensations, though not enough to burn the skin.
After applying heat of up to 117.5 degrees Fahrenheit to the research subjects who passed the initial screening, Schafer applied what the subject thought was an analgesic gel on the affected skin then – unbeknownst to the research subject – turned down the temperature. In fact, the treatment was Vaseline with blue food coloring in an official-looking pharmaceutical container.
“They believed the treatment was effective in relieving pain,” Schafer said. “After this process, they had acquired the placebo effect. We tested them with and without the treatment on medium intensity. They reported less pain with the placebo.”
According to a news release from the university, the research findings could open doors to new ways to treat drug addiction or aid in pain management for children or adults who have undergone surgery and are taking strong and potentially addictive painkillers.