They are the miracle pills that shouldn’t really work at all. Placebos come in all shapes and sizes, but they contain no active ingredient. Now they are being shown to help treat pain, depression and even alleviate some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. How is this possible?
Well, it all lies inside the brain and scientists are trying to figure out why, but I want to give you a couple of examples to show you how powerful a placebo can be.
In one test they had professional bicycle riders do a time trial around a track as fast as they could. After that was done, they gave each cyclist a placebo pill. Now, the cyclist thought they were getting this ¨legal¨ caffeine pill that would improve their results but in reality there was NOTHING in the pill. The normal thing would be that the second time trial they would go slower because they were already tired from the first. But all cyclist performed better and some even register their best record ever!! So how can a pill with nothing inside help someone cycle faster than ever before??
But a placebo doesn´t even have to be a pill, for instance lately there have been different studies where they have done ¨fake operations¨ and have gotten the same results as real operations (1). In one these ¨fake operations¨, patients thought they were getting a vertebroplasty. This means that ¨cement¨ is injected into a fracture spinal bone to provide extra strength to it. So what they did is they had thirty-six patients believing they were undergoing this procedure (while another group was actually getting the real surgery). To mimic the effect of the operation, surgeons just tapped against the spine making the patients believe the needle containing medical cement was being inserted into the spinal bone. To make it even more authentic, they also made sure that the odour of the cement was present in the operating room. The results were that the patients who had the sham surgery reported that they experienced the same relief of pain as those who had the real operation (2)!!! This is not an isolated finding as they have done the same thing with knee arthroscopic surgery and found the same results!!! Incredible or what?
In another test, Professor Fabrizio Benedetti (University of Turin) is using low oxygen levels at high altitudes to conduct his investigations, to test whether placebos can cause real changes in the body. Subjects strapped with fake oxygen canisters were requested to hike for 30 minutes whilst their brain activity, heart rate and neurotransmitters were all monitored. You see, when we come to high altitudes the low oxygen levels cause our blood levels to fall, this makes our PGE2 (a neurotransmitter) levels to go up, and that leads us to feel some of the familiar symptoms of altitude sickness like pain, but extra oxygen can ease the problem. Well guess what, the fake oxygen cause those PGE2 levels go down. A placebo, meaning nothing, has changed something physically in the body. How crazy is that?
I will leave it at that today so that you guys can digest all the information. But I will do a second part with more examples to try to explain a little more of what placebo is and how we can use it.
Hope you liked it!!