Pharmaceutical companies spend billions developing the next big drug. But sometimes, all a patient needs is a sugar pill. The placebo effect is a well-documented phenomenon where the belief that a treatment is helping can actually cause symptoms to subside, even if the treatment is imaginary.
Nortin Hadler, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said on The State of Things that we have known about placebos for a long time, starting with a man named Henry Beecher.
"He was a physician during World War II," Hadler said. "He was fascinated by the fact that not all injured soldiers needed opiates."
Beecher's curiosity led him to study what separated the experience of pain between soldiers, and he ultimately discovered the placebo effect.
"You could get comfort from something that was designed to be inert," Hadler said of what Beecher discovered.
So, for instance, you could give someone a sugar pill, tell them that it was medicine, and it might actually make the person feel better.
Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavorial economics at Duke University, had direct experience with this effect.
"I was a burn patient for a long time. And when I was in the burn department, the doctors gave us a limit of how much painkillers we could have," he said.
He tracked the dosage that he and others got, and he noticed that at night, sometimes patients would cry and a nurse would come in an inject them with something, putting them to sleep. He complained to the nurses that it wasn't fair to give other patients extra medication and not him. But then the nurse's revealed something funny.
"Sometimes they would tell me that they just gave them placebos," he said. "They just gave them IV fluid."
This made him interested in the placebo effect, and the more he studied it, the more intriguing it became.
"It's really the body's ability to predict its own future... and make it a reality," Ariely said.
Alison Adcock, an assistant professor in the Duke University Institute for Brain Sciences, said
understanding the placebo effect can lead to innovative treatments for pain and other symptoms.
"The more powerful piece of this is just thinking about how many different ways we can shore up our patients to make progress," she said.
That could involve a mix of medication and certain psychological tactics designed to make a patient feel better.
"Instead of applying a medicine that we use in the same way that we've been using antibiotics...we could manipulate these systems in a very dynamic way to tune the brain for a very particular kind of learning."
In another words, they might be able to one day teach the brain to soothe its own symptoms.
Audio for this segment will be up by 3 p.m.
Host Frank Stasio talks about the placebo effect with Nortin Hadler, professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Alison Adcock, an assistant professor in the Duke University Institute for Brain Sciences; and Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavorial economics at Duke University.