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Study: Deception Not Required For Placebo Effect To Work

December 23, 2010

Placebos can be effective in medical treatments–even if the patients taking them know that they’re not actual medications, researchers from Harvard Medical School’s (HMS) Osher Research Center and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) have discovered.

In the study, researchers selected 80 individuals who were suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and divided them into two groups. The first received no treatment, while the others were given placebos, told that they were effectively just sugar pills, and were told to take them two times each day for a period of three weeks.

“Not only did we make it absolutely clear that these pills had no active ingredient and were made from inert substances, but we actually had ‘placebo’ printed on the bottle,” HMS Associate Professor of Medicine Ted Kaptchuk said in a statement Wednesday. “We told the patients that they didn’t have to even believe in the placebo effect. Just take the pills.”

According to an HMS press release, by the end of the trial, nearly twice as many of those who received the placebo treatment reported “adequate symptom relief” (59 percent) when compared to the control group (35 percent). The results showed that those patients taking the placebo showed improvement rates “to a degree roughly equivalent to the effects of the most powerful IBS medications.”

The study, which appears in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE, illustrate that fooling patients is not required in order for the placebo effect to work, allowing medical professionals to harness the positive traits of the treatment without compromising their ethics through deception, the researchers report.

“I didn’t think it would work,” admitted senior author Anthony Lembo, an associate professor of medicine at BIDMC and an IBS authority. “I felt awkward asking patients to literally take a placebo. But to my surprise, it seemed to work for many of them.”

“Nevertheless,” added Kaptchuk, “these findings suggest that rather than mere positive thinking, there may be significant benefit to the very performance of medical ritual. I’m excited about studying this further. Placebo may work even if patients know it is a placebo.”

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