The Secret Life of Placebos

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Stuart Bradford /

Recent studies prove that prescribing pills that don’t contain any drugs can be as effective as the real thing–assuming that, in most cases, patients don’t know they’re swallowing fakes. This begs a number of questions, including whether doctors can capitalize on this placebo effect without lying.

On the one hand, “it seems sensible to make every effort to enlist the body’s own ability to heal itself–which is what, at bottom, placebos seem to do,” Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow writes in the Boston Globe (May 9, 2010). But how would a doctor honor the principle of informed consent? *One tack would be to notify patients that they’re being given a fake pill. Humans can learn on a subconscious level to respond to certain stimuli, like Pavlov’s dogs, Tuhus-Dubrow points out, so our brains could react to the placebo without conscious faith in the drug.

Placebos could also be integrated with real treatments. In one successful study, actual drugs were combined with placebo “reinforcements.” Says one of the study’s authors, “If [doctors] can produce approximately the same therapeutic effect with less drug, then it’s obviously safer for the patient, and I can’t believe they wouldn’t want to look into doing this.”

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