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brain powerRegular readers will realise that I have a real soft spot for placebo power, and am constantly disappointed by reports that use the word placebo as a derogatory term.

So here’s a great story that I came across today on placebo, and how you can maximise the effect. The study has just been published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, and involves patients with Parkinson’s disease.

The researchers involved in the study told patients who were being given a placebo that they had a 75 percent chance of getting the real drug (when you take part in a trial, you’re told that you could either get the real drug or a placebo). So they would have thought they had a pretty good chance of getting the drug rather than the placebo.

After receiving the placebo, scans showed that the patients’ brains produced significant amounts of dopamine – a feel-good chemical that’s involved in the brain’s reward system (and which is produced only in low levels in people with Parkinson’s). Now they also told patients that they had a 25 percent, 50 percent or 100 percent chance of getting the drug and not a placebo, but in those instances there was no such boost of dopamine. Which is very interesting. So basically when you’re told you have a 100 percent chance of getting the drug, it’s as if your brain doesn’t activate the reward system, so no release of dopamine.

Of course because this trial was performed using people with Parkinson’s – and whose dopamine production is not the same as those who don’t have the disease – it may be impossible to replicate the same findings in other individuals. But nevertheless this is a fascinating piece of work, don’t you think?

The problem with placebo power, of course, is that it involves pulling the wool over people’s eyes – lying to them, to be frank. So it’s just not ethical for your GP to lie to you about the prescription he or she is writing out, they simply can’t tell you you’re getting this or that drug but in reality give you a sugar pill.

There again, as the researchers of this study state, there’s nothing wrong in “promoting positive expectations and good doctor-patient relationships”, which they say could help harness the amazing thing that is placebo power.

Too right, I say.