Placebo Study -- Works Even When You Know You're Not Taking Real Medicine

Placebo treatment better than no treatment - study suggests

A placebo treatment, even when patients know they are using a placebo pill, could be better than no treatment according to a new study published on December 22 in PLoS ONE.

The study led by Ted Kaptchuk at Harvard Medical School's Osher Research Center and colleagues from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), showed patients with irritable bowel syndrome who were knowingly treated with a pill without any active ingredient were more likely to report flavorable outcomes than those receiving no treatment.

The effect observed in the IBS group receiving the dummy pill was not the conventional placebo effect. Strictly speaking, a placebo effect refers to a therapeutic effect seen in a patient who does not know he is taking a placebo pill.

But in the current study, Kaptchuk told patients on the placebo treatment that they were specifically using a pill with no active ingredient. 

The researchers wanted to know if a pill without any active ingredient would have any effect when the subjects were  honestly told they were using something non-medical.

For the study, 40 IBS patients were given twice a day a pill honestly described as "like sugar pill" and another group of 40 patients were left untreated for three weeks.

By the end of the study, 59 percent of those on the placebo treatment reported adequate symptom relief, compared to 35 percent of those left untreated.

Even better, "patients taking the placebo doubled their rates of improvement to a degree roughly equivalent to the effects of the most powerful IBS medications," according to a press release by Public Library of Science.

Kaptchuk was quoted as saying "these findings suggest that rather than mere positive thinking, there may be significant benefit to the very performance of medical ritual. I'm excited about studying this further. Placebo may work even if patients know it is a placebo." 

A health observer suggested that the study actually suggests a placebo treatment could be better than no treatment because the therapeutic effect observed in the treatment group was not a common placebo effect.

Kaptchuk is a doctor of Chinese medicine, according to  He has conducted much of his research on the placebo effect as a professor at Harvard Medical School.

Kaptchuk also reported in the March 2010 issue of Neurogastroenterology and Motility that the placebo effect was correlated with changes in a number of biomarkers.

In this study, one group of patients with irritable bowel syndrome received sham acupuncture and another group received no treatment. And 10 serum biomarkers were tested at baseline and at the 3rd week of the study.

The researchers found a more pronounced change in serum levels of osteoprotegerin in those received the placebo treatment, compared with those receiving no treatment.

Those who reported adequate relief of their IBS symptoms in both groups, particularly those who received the placebo treatment, were found to have higher serum levels of osteoprotegerin or OPG and TNF-related weak inducer of apoptosis (TWEAK) at baseline.

The study suggests a placebo treatment could result in a positive physiological change to help relievesymptoms.


David Liu and editing by Aimee Keenan-Greene



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