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Why placebo effect works only for some people? Scientists think they may have the answer

Everyone knows that placebo is capable of effectively reducing pain, but people respond differently to placebo treatment. A new study from the University of Luxembourg revealed that it depends heavily on person‘s ability to reinterpret negative events and to control feelings. Interestingly, this was figured out using fMRI technology.

Placebo effect is real – scans reveal that regions in the brain that process pain become less active after the drug is taken. But why does it do that? Because the drug doesn’t have any active substances, it must mean that the person’s ability to control emotions matters the most. That would explain why people respond to placebo differently. Understanding placebo effect is very important.

Although many people doubt positive effects of placebos, research shows that they may induce some biological changes. Image credit: Elaine and Arthur Shapiro via Wikimedia

Placebo effect has a strong negative reputation. It is often said that patients only imagine getting better and in reality they are not healing at all. However, latest studies showed that placebo can actually trigger some biological changes, but only in some people. Furthermore, placebo effect plays a role every time doctors administer any kind of treatment – person’s anticipation of getting better improves his health significantly. If we understood placebo effect better, we could employ it a little bit more purposely.

Scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging to find a link between the regions in the brain that respond to a placebo and the ability to regulate emotions. Participants had to look at pictures that invoke some negative emotions and were asked to counter these emotions with positive thinking. Scientists meanwhile where monitoring activity in the brain. Then participants received painful stimuli to arms and were told to be administered a pharmaceutical, which will relieve the pain. Participants reported relief even though this drug was just a moisturizer.

Placebo effect was clearly working and scientists noticed that those with a higher capacity to control their negative feelings showed the largest responses to the placebo cream. Dr Marian van der Meulen, one of the authors of the study, said: “fMRI measures this change in blood flow and detects which areas of the brain are involved in a certain mental process. In our research we were able to detect decreases in activation in pain-processing regions but also increases in an area involved in emotion regulation.”

Scientists are already thinking about the next steps. Now they will see how placebo effect works in elderly people. Older people respond differently to pain and no one really knows why. Understanding how placebo works could help improve the quality of life of sick people at later stages in life.

 

Source:  University of Luxembourg

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