Over at SEEDMAGAZINE.COM, my column discusses the recent flurry of blog posts and media reporting on the placebo effect. Here’s a snippet:
This is the primary misconception about placebos: that the placebo itself is somehow “working” to treat a medical condition. You can see it even in the headline for an otherwise well-crafted article that appeared in Wired last August: “Placebos Are Getting More Effective. Drugmakers Are Desperate to Know Why.” As internist and medical professor Peter Lipson noted on the Science-Based Medicine blog, placebos by definition have no medical effect. The “placebo effect” is due to the subject’s (and sometimes, the experimenter’s) expectation that a treatment will work. And, of course, a patient sometimes recovers simply due to chance or because his or her immune response handled the problem. Researchers observe an improvement, and this gets attributed to the placebo. In the case of the Wired article, the misconception in the headline is cleared up by the text of the report: The placebo effect may be getting stronger for reasons that are unclear to researchers. Placebos themselves, as ever, remain ineffective.
The anonymous blogger and UK-based neuroscientist Neuroskeptic also addresses the Wired report in a post entitled “Deconstructing the Placebo.” Neuroskeptic points out that many of the issues we have with placebos are more properly directed at the medical conditions a placebo could supposedly address. If a placebo is just as effective at reducing anxiety as a drug designed for that purpose, what does that tell us about the nature of anxiety? Is participation in a research study motivating people to do other ostensibly anxiety-reducing activities? How exactly are these additional activities helping the problem? Even if placebos aren’t cures, we should be able to learn more about real medical conditions by investigating how people respond to a fictional “treatment.”
Also, in case you missed it, here are my picks from neuroscience and psychology posts this past week on ResearchBlogging.org:
- Deep brain stimulation for depressed rats. The Neuroskeptic shows how new research demonstrates how the treatment may work–for both humans and rats.
- A new kind of brain stimulation. Doctor Shock discusses a new, less-invasive technique that might work the same way as deep-brain stimulation to treat depression.
- The upside of depression. Obviously severe depression is bad. But The Psych Student explores how a little depression could actually be a good thing.
One more thing: The Depression Bipolar Support Alliance is sponsoring a video contest, with a prize of $1,000 for the best video. How cool would it be if the winner incorporated some discussion of peer-reviewed research?