Gary B. Rollman,
Emeritus Professor of Psychology,
University of Western Ontario
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Friday, December 24, 2010
Meet the Ethical Placebo: A Story that Heals | NeuroTribes
A provocative new study called "Placebos Without Deception," published on PLoS One today, threatens to make humble sugar pills something they've rarely had a chance to be in the history of medicine: a respectable, ethically sound treatment for disease that has been vetted in controlled trials.
The word placebo is ancient, coming to us from the Latin for "I shall please."As far back as the 14th Century, the term already had connotations of fakery, sleaze, and deception. For well-to-do Catholic families in Geoffrey Chaucer's day, the custom at funerals was to offer a feast to the congregation after the mourners sang the Office for the Dead (which contains the phrase placebo Domino in regione vivorum, "I shall please the Lord in the land of the living"). The unintended effect of this largesse was to inspire distant relatives and former acquaintances of the departed to crawl out of the woodwork, weeping copiously while praising the deceased, then hastening to the buffet. By the time Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales, these macabre freeloaders had been christened "placebo singers."
In modern medicine, placebos are associated with another form of deception — a kind that has long been thought essential for conducting randomized clinical trials of new drugs, the statistical rock upon which the global pharmaceutical industry was built. One group of volunteers in an RCT gets the novel medication; another group (the "control" group) gets pills or capsules that look identical to the allegedly active drug, but contain only an inert substance like milk sugar. These faux drugs are called placebos.
Inevitably, the health of some people in both groups improves, while the health of others grows worse. Symptoms of illness fluctuate for all sorts of reasons, including regression to the mean. Since the goal of an RCT, from Big Pharma's perspective, is to demonstrate the effectiveness of a new drug, the return to robust health of a volunteer in the control group is considered a statistical distraction. If too many people in the trial get better after downing sugar pills, the real drug will look worse by comparison — sometimes fatally so for the purpose of earning approval from the Food and Drug Adminstration.
For a complex and somewhat mysterious set of reasons, it is becoming increasingly difficult for experimental drugs to prove their superiority to sugar pills in RCTs, which was the subject of an in-depth article I published inWired called "The Placebo Problem," recipient of this year's Kavli/AAAS Science Journalism of the Year award for a magazine feature.
Only in recent years, however, has it become obvious that the abatement of symptoms in control-group volunteers — the so-called placebo effect — is worthy of study outside the context of drug trials, and is in fact profoundly good news to anyone but investors in Pfizer, Roche, and GlaxoSmithKline. The emerging field of placebo research has revealed that the body's repertoire of resilience contains a powerful self-healing network that can help reduce pain and inflammation, lower the production of stress chemicals like cortisol, and even tame high blood pressure and the tremors of Parkinson's disease.
Jumpstarting this network requires nothing more or less than a belief that one is receiving effective treatment — in the form of a pill, a capsule, talk therapy, injection, IV, or acupuncture needle. The activation of this self-healing network is what we really mean when we talk about the placebo effect. Though inert in themselves, placebos act as passwords between the domain of the mind and the domain of the body, enabling the expectation of healing to be translated into cascades of neurotransmitters and altered patterns of brain activity that engender health.
That's all well and good, but what does it mean in the real world of people getting sick? You can hardly expect the American Medical Association to issue a wink and a nod to doctors, encouraging them to prescribe sugar pills for seriously disabling conditions like chronic depression and Parkinson's disease. Meanwhile, more and more studies each year — by researchers like Fabrizio Benedetti at the University of Turin, author of a superb new book called The Patient's Brain, and neuroscientist Tor Wager at the University of Colorado — demonstrate that the placebo effect might be potentially useful in treating a wide range of ills. Then why aren't doctors supposed to use it?
The medical establishment's ethical problem with placebo treatment boils down to the notion that for fake drugs to be effective, doctors must lie to their patients. It has been widely assumed that if a patient discovers that he or she is taking a placebo, the mind/body password will no longer unlock the network, and the magic pills will cease to do their job.