What is a placebo?

The American physician Henry Beecher published in 1955 in his book "The Powerful Placebo" observations that he had made during the Second World War to US soldiers. To relieve pain, he administered morphine. When he ran out of this, he replaced it with weak saline, with the effect that the "ineffective" substance took the pain of many soldiers. The word "placebo" comes from the Latin and means "I will please".

Preparations without therapeutic effect

Placebos are preparations that have no therapeutic effect. Instead of an active ingredient, placebo pills contain only fillers, such as lactose or starch. Today, placebos are commonly used in clinical trials designed to test the efficacy of new drugs. In these so-called double-blind studies, some of the subjects get the drug, another part the placebo. Astonishingly, subjects who have taken over the "ineffective dummy drug" over the course of the study show changes due to the intake. Both positive effects and side effects, so-called nocebo effects can be observed in these.

Imagination, self-healing, miracles?

But what about the placebo effect? Do Patients Only Imagine Improving By Showing Placebo Symptoms Of Their Disease? Can the observed effect be shifted to the attention that a patient receives under placebo treatment (talking to the doctor, examinations, etc.), or does the body's self-healing powers come into play, which are manifested by belief in the drug? The placebo effect employs many scientists. Here are some approaches:

  • Placebos show no effect. Effects seen after taking placebo will find their explanation in the natural course of a disease. The improvement of the suffering falls coincidentally with the intake.
  • The placebo effect is explained by an interaction between the nervous system and the immune system.
  • A recent study (Leuchter et al., Changes in brain function of depressed subjects during treatment with placebo; Am J Psychiatry 2002 Jan; 159 (1): 122-9) shows that placebo intake causes brain function changes. Furthermore, it was shown that placebos could cause the release of endorphins.

The statistician dr. John Bailar III explains the placebo effect as follows: "The belief in the existence of the placebo effect has become a kind of secular religion, and as with any religion, there is no evidence that could dissuade a believer from his opinion."

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