BOULDER, Colo. — The placebo effect has been known to help bring temporary relief to medical patients by leading them to truly believe they feel better while battling an ailment, even if the ailment hasn’t actually improved. Now, a new study finds that the placebo effect can be an effective cure for a broken heart — simply by tricking one into thinking that they’re on the mend.
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder recruited 40 individuals who had exited a relationship that they didn’t want to end in the preceding six months.
“Breaking up with a partner is one of the most emotionally negative experiences a person can have, and it can be an important trigger for developing psychological problems,” says first author and postdoctoral research associate Leonie Koban in a university news release.
Through a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine-based experiment, the researchers found that similar regions of the brain were activated in reaction to both a physical stimuli (a hot sensation) and a photo of the individual’s ex, which served as an emotional trigger.
Soon after, participants were given a nasal spray without medicinal properties, which is where the placebo effect was tested.
Half of the participants were told that the spray was a “powerful analgesic effective in reducing emotional pain,” while the other half were told that it was no more than a simple saline solution.
On a second go-around with the fMRI machine, those who had been tricked into believing the spray was potent not only reported feeling less physical and emotional pain, but reacted differently to the stimulus of their former partner.
Areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation showed improvement, while those triggered by rejection were less easily provoked.
“We found a placebo can have quite strong effects on reducing the intensity of social pain,” says Koban,
A healthy spike in the brain region associated with the healthy regulation of neurotransmitters was also observed.
The researchers weren’t certain of the cause-and-effect, but they had a good hunch.
“The current view is that you have positive expectations and they influence activity in your prefrontal cortex, which in turn influences systems in your midbrain to generate neurochemical opioid or dopamine responses,” says Wager.
The researchers hope that their study demonstrates the immense power of expectation, and how expectation can be harnessed to achieve desired aims.
“Doing anything that you believe will help you feel better will probably help you feel better,” says Koban.
The study’s findings were published last month in the Journal of Neuroscience.