The Power of the Placebo Effect

The premise of the placebo effect, a phenomenon in which self-reported perceptions of pain, emotion or distress are altered with some sort of “sugar pill,” is interesting. Is the mind so potent that we believe we can get better with a pill enough to cure us? Is positive reinforcement so therapeutic it can alleviate all symptoms of sickness?

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I’ve read a few mind-body examples of the placebo effect in science journals and have even seen some during the care of my own patients. One study done by the University of Denver about a decade ago explored placebos and the degenerative illness Parkinson’s Disease. As Parkinson’s progresses, the amount of dopamine decreases and a person becomes less able to control movement. For the study, human embryonic dopamine neurons were implanted through tiny holes in the patients’ brains. In the placebo case, tiny holes were implanted without implantation of stem cells and 30 out of 40 patients had objective clinical improvement in their motor symptoms a year after the surgery.

The placebo effect is also seen in treatment for psychiatric illness. Clinical trials have shown that SSRI’s are effective for helping the symptoms of depression, but only after a certain period of time. During the initial time lapse of 6-8 weeks the placebo effect may be responsible for patients’ subjective experience of improved mood. This is most evident in an inpatient psychiatric unit because daily patient visits along with group and talk therapy show that patients improve relatively quickly on depression rating scales when they are taking a daily SSRI.

dr. uruj kamal

dr. uruj kamal

Dr. Uruj Kamal is Chief Resident of Adult Outpatient Psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center-University of Massachusetts Medical School. A Stony Brook native, she enjoys combining her knowledge of mental health with healthy living. Dr. Kamal has a special interest in outpatient adult psychiatry.