Placebos Found to Have Positive Effects

Placebos may have beneficial effects even if the patient is completely aware of the medicine’s inert nature, according to a recent Harvard-affiliated report.

The study explored the importance of a familiar routine in health care beyond the direct medicinal effects, including positive doctor-patient relations and regimented medicinal care.

Conducted by scientists at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the study found that regularly taking prescribed medicine and receiving warm, friendly advice from physicians may have inherent benefits.

“The long term goal is to elevate and harness the self-healing capacity of the ritual of medicine, the patient-physician relationship, and the power of imagination, will, and belief,” said Ted J. Kaptchuk, associate professor of medicine at BIDMC who led the study and plans to start a new center for the study of placebos at BIDMC in July.

In the study, the scientists divided a group of 80 people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome into two groups.

One group received no drugs, while the other group was told to take a placebo twice a day.

After three weeks, 59 percent of those taking the dummy pill said they experienced “adequate relief” of their symptoms even though they knew the pill was a placebo. Only 35 percent of the control subjects reported the same response.

Across three other standard outcome measures for IBS, those taking the placebo had results about twice as positive as the control group.

According to John M. Kelley, a researcher on the study and an instructor in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, placebos have been shown to have up to 80 percent of the effect of some medicines.

He said that the subjects for this study were not required to believe that placebos are effective, but they were told to keep an open mind about the use of placebos and their possible significant positive effects.

“It’s basically a sales job, to sell the placebo as an effective treatment,” said Anthony J. Lembo, associate professor of medicine at BIDMC who also worked on the study.

The researchers said the trial—published Dec. 22 in PLoS One—was preliminary, and that the broader implications of the findings remained unclear. They hope to conduct a larger study soon to confirm the results and to eventually run studies incorporating other illnesses.

“The study highlights the effect of the mind on the body,” Lembo said. “None of us believe this will cure cancer.”

—Staff Writer Benjamin M. Scuderi can be reached at bscuderi@college.harvard.edu.

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