TL;DR Science: The Placebo Effect

By Srishti Swaminathan
October 14, 2022 · 3 minute read

Medicine

Biology

Chemistry

What is the Placebo Effect?

A placebo is a drug or treatment that has no beneficial ingredients or properties but still makes a patient “feel better.”  Notice those quotation marks; the medicine will not actually do anything, but a strong belief in the product will make it seem like it is working.  In other words, the placebo effect psychologically tricks you into thinking that you are getting better by taking a certain medication, when in reality, the medication has no ingredients to help you.

The History of the Placebo Effect

So when was this effect first discovered?  Well, a physician from Britain named John Haygarth was the one to come across it in 1799; in order to test the ability of metal rods called Perkins tractors that were said to remove any disease from the body, he used dupe rods on patients with rheumatism and recorded how they felt.  A staggering 80% of patients who were treated with the sham reported feeling better than before!

Later on, Henry K. Beecher (an American medic) ran out of the painkiller morphine during World War ll.  As a last resort, he used a simple saline solution with no pain-killing properties and told the soldiers they were receiving the real deal; yet again, almost half the soldiers said that the so-called “injection” reduced or got rid of their pain completely.

Usage in Recent Times

More recently, the placebo effect has been used in clinical trials to test the efficacy, or success, of a drug.  One group receives the drug in question while the other receives the placebo, usually a sugar pill or some other fake medicine.  Here’s the catch: the participants don’t know if they are taking the real drug or the placebo, and this is where the power of positive thinking comes in.  If both groups react the same way, it can be concluded that the drug has no beneficial properties and needs to be reworked.  If the group without actual treatment feels the same way, that must mean the drug is just as ineffective as the placebo.

The Science Behind It

So why do placebos often end up working?  The UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute conducted a study in 2002 in which they gave two groups of people antidepressants while the third group received a placebo.  The researchers measured the average brain activity of each group using a method called electroencephalography (EEG).  They found that those treated with the placebo had higher levels of brain activity in the prefrontal cortex than those treated with the actual drug.  The conclusion was that the brain was not actually being “deceived” per se; it just reacted differently to the medicine and the placebo.  Later studies also showed that the effect had to do with endorphins, or the brain’s natural painkilling hormones.

TL;DR

The placebo effect is one that scientists don’t fully understand.  It’s a relationship between the mind and body like none other.  Numerous scientists and studies have found that faith in a placebo causes patients to feel much better than before.  Either way, the next time you swallow a pill, think positively; the power of optimism is endless.

Here’s a great video if you want to learn more about the placebo effect!

Sources:

https://www.health.harvard.edu/mental-health/the-power-of-the-placebo-effect

https://knowablemagazine.org/article/mind/2017/imagination-effect-history-placebo-pow 

https://www.healthline.com/health/placebo-effect 

https://theconversation.com/the-fascinating-story-of-placebos-and-why-doctors-should-use-them-more-often-149945 

Image Sources:

https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.vox.com

https://cdn.flintrehab.com/uploads/2020/08/prefrontal-cortex-damage.png 

Did you enjoy this article?

About The Author

Srishti Swaminathan is a high school sophomore interested in STEM and writing.  She enjoys reading, listening to music, and watching movies.  If you have any comments or questions regarding this article, feel free to contact her at srishti@sciteens.org.

More on this topic...

TL;DR Science: Oncogenes

Perhaps you may have heard someone say at one point “I am at risk for ___ cancer, so I have to take extra precautions…”. Or, you may have heard the claim that “Sunscreen can reduce your risk of getting skin cancer”. Two questions consequently arise: first, how do we actually know of cancer risk; second, what does it mean to be at risk? To start we have to look at our cells’ DNA and what can happen if it becomes mutated. 

TL;DR Speaker Series: Biomedical Engineering: A Multipotential STEM Major

Introducing our new speaker series only at Sciteens! Starting off the series we have Jana Al Hinnawi and her experience as a biomedical engineering major.

TL;DR Science: Horticulture Therapy

Anxiety. It isn’t tangible but can overwhelm someone to the point of seeming so. The dictionary definition is: “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” This feeling can transform from an internal feeling to something with an external presence easily. However, there are ways to dissuade these negative emotional sensations. Learn more in this week's article!

TL;DR Science: Catching the Love Bug: Falling in Love + Hormonal Changes

What would you say if I told you falling in love was more than just grand, romantic gestures and butterflies in your stomach but rather microscopic molecules altering your brain chemistry?

TL;DR Science: Exercise and the Brain

It’s a given that exercise is beneficial for the mind and body, but little attention is paid to the differential effects of exercise on the body. In this article, we explore two popular exercise methods, along with recently discovered correlates between the exercises and the nervous system.