There’s a good read up over at Wired News: Why Sugar Pills Cure Some Ills on how scientists are starting to try and figure out how the placebo effect works and why it only seems to work for some people. Part of the problem in studying placebos is in deciding what you use for a controlled experiment seeing as placebos are what’s usually given to the control group when testing other drugs.
“There really hasn’t been a whole lot of research on the placebo,” said epidemiologist Dr. John Bailar, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. “There’s a lot of description and a lot of chatter, but we don’t know a whole lot about it.”
One thing seems to be clear, however. The brain is a “crucial player,” said Leitner during a workshop on placebos at a February meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“What we need to learn is how taking a placebo affects the brain’s processing of symptoms and other sensations related to illness, how it affects output and the activity of your immune system,” said Dr. David Spiegel, a Stanford University psychiatrist who studies placebos.
Research has shown that people who unknowingly take placebos—sometimes pills, sometimes injections—often feel relief from pain, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders and high blood pressure. But placebos don’t help people recover from diseases like cancer. “They’re more likely to be effective when there’s a perceptive component to the illness,” Spiegel said.
Anyone skeptical of alternative medicines, such as I am, is probably already pretty familiar with the placebo effect as it’s generally regarded as one of the main reasons people actually believe homeopathic remedies and healing magnets actually do something. The book Voodoo Science I listed over on the left under my “Currently Reading” heading talks about the power of belief in the form of the placebo effect quite a bit and gives an overview of how it’s thought to work, but more studies are clearly warranted and will provide some useful insight into how the brain works.
Providing they can figure out how to study it.