Placebo effect in science and life remains a mystery -

Placebo effect remains a mystery

Most have heard of the placebo effect, a mysterious phenomenon where a fake treatment, such as sugar water, can make a patient feel better just because he or she thinks it will.

Doctors and researchers can find it helpful sometimes, but other times it can get in the way.

You might say the placebo effect is part of that mind-body connection.

If you've ever put a bandage on a child's scratch, you might have noticed she feels better right away, though there's really no medical reason she should.

It would be great if researchers could figure out a way to harness the placebo effect and even make it stronger, but for now, they mostly use it to help them create new treatments.

The human mind-body connection is still a great mystery.

How do we think or even wish ourselves well when we're sick, or wish ourselves to stay healthy?

About 20 years ago, Nancy Bissell enrolled in a study to see if the drug tamoxifen could prevent breast cancer in women at increased risk of developing the disease.

Bissell had just lost her sister to breast cancer.

"Half of us were given tamoxifen. Half of us were given placebo," Bissell said.

It was a double-blind study, meaning no one, not the patients, the doctors nor the staff, knew who was taking what.

But Bissell said, in some way that is a mystery to her, she knew.

"It's hard to describe exactly why I felt that way. Sort of a message my body sent to me," she said.

When the study ended, Bissell was told she indeed had been given a placebo.

She says there's no way to prove it, but she feels her whole attitude during the study is one reason why today, at 72, she remains healthy.

"I just sense that the fact that I took the placebo and did it with sort of a positive attitude affected my future health," Bissell said.

Wishful thinking. Positive thinking. The placebo effect.

The mystery of the placebo effect is familiar to those in medical and research circles.

"If we could figure out how to have people ramp up their immune systems to cancer to help fight it off, that would be a powerful tool," said Dr. Richard Herrier, University of Arizona professor of pharmacy practice. "We know it can. We just don't know how to harness it, or tell them how to use it."

Herrier said a placebo is a useful tool in research to test and develop drugs.

The tamoxifen study is just one example.

"What we want to see is how much better the active drug is than the placebo," Herrier said. "That sort of negates the placebo effect."

Dr. Michael Bookman, UA Cancer Center's director of clinical research, explained that in cancer research the placebo is there to eliminate bias because, especially in cancer care, there's a lot of hope the new drug will work.

"You want to be careful to minimize the risk of bias," Bookman said. "So it's a lot cleaner and it's a lot more powerful to do a study where you take a standard treatment and then add an experimental drug or add a placebo and compare the results."

The hope is that the new drug works significantly better than a placebo, which can have a very minor effect if it has one at all.

However, during a clinical trial, the placebo effect also can have a negative impact.

That can happen when the patient doesn't think a drug will work.

"There is a risk of what you might call a negative placebo effect, because if the patient does not believe in the treatment, they're not going to tolerate it as well. They may not feel as well," Bookman said.

Getting back to positive thinking, Bookman said in actual treatment, the placebo effect can make a drug work even better than expected.

"Whether they get better because of a placebo effect or whether they get better because of an actual effect from the drug on the patient, as long as they're better, that's obviously the most important thing," Bookman said.

Bissell said, "I think that I do probably have more power to influence my health than I think I do. The mind can be a powerful drug in itself."

Here's something else interesting about placebo: Bookman said in certain headache studies, patients who got placebos sometimes saw improvement.

He says that's a good thing, because it indicates that the patients probably are learning ways to control some of factors that give them headaches in the first place.

Something for all of us to positively think about.

Copyright 2012 America Now. All rights reserved.

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