Harvard Study: Placebo Effect Is Real


NEW YORK (MainStreet) –The placebo effect may well be real, according to a study conducted by Harvard Medical School’s Osher Research Center and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Researchers found that taking a placebo – those dummy pills with no active ingredient – may yield results even when patients are fully aware they’re not ingesting a working drug. 

While prior research has shown that placebos can have an effect on patients, the common belief has been that the “placebo effect” is synonymous with the power of positive thinking. In other words, it works because you believe it will.

The latest study, however, seems to debunk this conclusion since participants were told directly that they weren’t really being treated with medicine. 

To investigate, researchers divided 80 patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) into two groups. The control group received no treatment at all, while the other group was put on a twice-daily regimen of placebos that were honestly described by physicians as “sugar pills.” Researchers even went so far as to print “placebo” directly on the bottle.

“We told the patients that they didn’t have to even believe in the placebo effect. Just take the pills,” HMS associate professor of medicine Ted Kaptchuk explained in the press release.

The patients were then monitored for three weeks, after which 59% of the patients treated with the placebos reported adequate symptom relief as compared to the rest (39%) of the control group.

Additionally, researchers noted, patients taking the placebo doubled their rates of improvement to a degree roughly equivalent to the effects of the most powerful IBS medications.

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

Lembo pointed out that the study was small in scope and that larger trials would be necessary to support its results.

Researchers also indicated that the study was not meant to suggest that placebos be given out in lieu of medications. Instead, the intent was to discover if placebos may work even when individuals know that they are not taking an active drug in hopes of bypassing the ethical dilemma of deceiving patients.

“These findings suggest that rather than mere positive thinking, there may be significant benefit to the very performance of medical ritual,” Kaptchuk said. “Placebos may work even if patients know it is a placebo.”

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