Mind over matter: Placebos are effective even when people know they’re fake

EAST LANSING, Mich. — The placebo effect is a phenomenon in which people experience a benefit from taking a “fake” medicine. Usually when people take a placebo, they aren’t told the medication isn’t real. A new study however, finds placebos can still have an effect even when people know that they’re taking one.

Researchers at Michigan State University, University of Michigan, and Dartmouth College say the general theory behind the placebo effect is that believing a treatment is real is enough to produce a reaction. The new experiment examines the effect of nondeceptive placebos on emotions.

Placebo spray? Still works OK

Researchers first separated study participants into two groups. The first group was asked to read about placebo effects and then take a nasal spray containing saline solution. They were also told the spray was a placebo, but that it would reduce negative emotions if they believed it would.

The second group (the control group) was asked to take the same nasal spray, but was instead told the purpose of the spray was to help with the collection of physiological recordings.

After taking the nasal spray, both groups were shown a series of emotional images while researchers recorded their brain activity. For each image, participants were asked to rate the amount of emotional distress they felt.

The study authors find the nondeceptive placebo group has lower self-reported emotional distress compared to the control group. They also display lower brain activity related to emotional distress.

‘If they believe it can, then it will’

So can simply thinking a drug will help make you better? The study contends that your emotional state plays a big role in it.

“Placebos are all about ‘mind over matter,'” says MSU Professor Jason Moser in a university statement. “Nondeceptive placebos were born so that you could possibly use them in routine practice. So rather than prescribing a host of medications to help a patient, you could give them a placebo, tell them it can help them and chances are — if they believe it can, then it will.”

Currently, the researchers are continuing their experiments by conducting a nondeceptive placebo study for COVID-19.

The study is published in Nature Communications.

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