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Placebo Power Probed

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The power of placebos is more mysterious than most scientists ever imagined. Sugar pills are perceived as worthless since they have no active ingredients. Researchers use them for comparison when they are testing new drugs. In a double-blind study, neither the investigators nor the subjects know who is getting placebo and who is getting the active drug. If a physician prescribes a sugar pill to a patient without disclosing that it's a placebo, the practice is considered unethical. Most scientists have assumed that placebos require a level of deception. Telling someone that you are giving him an inactive dummy pill presumably negates the possible psychological benefits.

Such thinking is now being questioned as a result of a new study. Investigators recruited 80 people with irritable bowel syndrome. Half received no treatment at all while the other half got placebo pills to take twice a day. They were told the pills were inactive sugar pills. Despite this information, 59 percent of those on placebo reported an improvement in symptoms after three weeks compared to just 35 percent of the untreated volunteers. The researchers believe that placebos may have a valuable role to play in treating many conditions, but a positive doctor patient relationship seems to be crucial for successful outcomes.

[PLoS One, Dec. 23, 2010]

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3 Comments

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Sugar itself has an effect on digestion. I think you used to add a little more sugar to infant formula if a baby was constipated. Also a person taking a sugar pill may be drinking more water than usual in order to swallow it.

I think placebos are ok as long as you are not treating a serious illness like cancer.

Years ago when I was working I was sometimes involved in psychopharmacological research.

My colleagues and I were always amused when the study results indicated that those subjects receiving placebo had more side-effects than those on the active drug.

When you pick up your next medication from the pharmacy, read the product insert. It often contains information about some studies involving the drug. See how many side-effects the placebo group developed.

Actually, the issues go much deeper than this. But just thought you might be interested.

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