Can Placebos Be Effective Even If We Know It’s Not a ‘Real’ Drug?

PainRelief.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: The takeaway is that placebos administered without deception works in reducing emotional distress and this can be observed in brain activity. Non-deceptive placebos produce beneficial, genuine, psychobiological effects, at least in the domain of emotional distress.

PainRelief.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: For me, one of the goals is to eventually provide robust evidence non-deceptive placebos work so that they become mainstream interventions for certain conditions. I tend to think of research directions that would help us get closer to that. So, I think mapping out for what domains non-deceptive placebos can be effective and not effective for is important. Another important direction would be testing if non-deceptive placebos can influence biomarkers of pain. The more studies we have showing positive effects on relevant biomarkers the better. One more important direction is doing large scale randomized-control trials for a clinical condition that is responsive to a deceptive version of this like major depressive disorder. That would really help in getting us closer to using non-deceptive placebos as mainstream interventions.

PainRelief.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: I think it’s important to highlight that placebos can produce real, psychobiological effects. They are not fake. It’s also important to add that they do not work for every domain or condition. Emotional distress is highly responsive to placebos, but something like cancer is not responsive at all. So when you hear someone talk about placebo effects, pay close attention to the condition. Because placebos can be powerfully effective, but not for everything.

Citation:

Guevarra, D.A., Moser, J.S., Wager, T.D. et al. Placebos without deception reduce self-report and neural measures of emotional distress. Nat Commun 11, 3785 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17654-y

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