Art & Science of Placebo: Irresistible Medication Dependency



It’s all in the mind!

There is a claim that most of the patients all over the world get their diseases cured not because of the medicines that they use but because of their undaunted trust in medication.

Humans have a weird fascination with deception. In one of the recent local language movies, there is a psychiatrist assisted by an assistant. On a problem solving mission, both get to go to an old demolished castle in a remote village. The assistant feels forced to go there as he is not brave enough to stand in such a haunting castle even for a minute. Especially when it is dark and time to sleep, he complains and sobs that he is not able to sleep due to the unusual bat flutters, cricket squeaks and owl hoots.

The psychiatrist realizes his discomfort and promises that he can give him a medicine which leads him to dizziness and deep sleep. The assistant feels happy and agrees instantly to take the medicine. The psychiatrist asks him to close the eyes and open his mouth. He tears a piece of waste paper and crushes it with his fingers to conjure a small piece which resembles a tablet and throws into the assistant’s mouth. The assistant gulps the tablet and in no time, he feels extremely sleepy. There is not even turning around on the bed throughout the night.

When the next night comes and the assistant feels the same fear and discomfort, he begins to cry saying he is not able to sleep again. The assistant himself asks the psychiatrist for the tablet that worked for the last night. This time the psychiatrist makes a little change in his deception strategy. While the assistant is ready with his closed eyes and wide open mouth, the psychiatrist simply makes a gesture as if he threw something in his mouth and says the tablet is in, gulp! The assistant, as anticipated, gulps and sleeps in a nick of time. It could not have been simpler.

This is deception. This is an illusion. This is a clever trick, magic, gimmick. This intriguing interest in depending on medication is called the Placebo Effect. A more researched view at this concept gave rise to a pool of statistical data that looks quite confusing also while opening curtains to new controversies. However, there are substantial medical researchers arguing for the usage of placebo; especially from Germany where Homeopathy hails from. The appliance of science feels responsible not only in innovating solutions to several medical problems, but also in exploring to reveal how exactly the placebo effect affects a patient physically.

This way of swapping the complex and technical ways of treating a disease has actually revolutionized not only the professional in the field but also the end-users. This led an array of research projects where the investigator experiments on patients to assert the validity of this effect. They work on a variety of conditions, a couple of them being – one with patients who have no idea what the experiment is all about but they still like to volunteer; and two, those subjects who are informed well in advance that they are being tested for such placebo effect in them. Surprisingly, the expert question from many non-experts is, how can placebo make any difference if the subject is already informed of the purpose of the experiment. Do you think it is hard? Hell yes, it is!

Crossing the boundaries of such qualitative research, scholars are now involved in several lofty technologies to work on the challenging concept. As the past studies have unlocked the details of a human brain right from which part of the brain has what sort of responsibility in our daily life; the part can be as small as it falls in a nano to millimeter scale. Using the information along with the current sophisticated medical imaging proficiency, scientists are carrying out a comparison analysis between the part of the brain getting affected by a particular drug and the part being affected by a placebo drug for the same complaint. Quite apparently, there came up a significant number of results which showed that it was the same part of the brain for diversified drugs in a multitude of experiments.

While the work is still in progress, this is what is worth mentioning here – the history of placebo is perhaps too long for us to go back all the way and find when it all began. At the beginning, there was no treatment for any disease except for severe levels of bearing and reconciling with the problem. In this, there was high chance of placebo affecting the problem-bearer, such as deep and reverberating prayers could have worked like a placebo drug giving rise to a situation solved. At a later stage, there came the hardest way of fighting a disease which merely took support of placebo such as inserting metal rods inside the parts of the body which corresponded to the particular problem in focus. One must know that this cannot be taken for granted as placebo effects are not simply due to the belief system; it is found in reality that they touch that part of the brain which can result in disease reduction same as a drug with clinical substances.

By the way, PLACEBO in Latin means, “I will please.” Glad that we limited this talk to placebo without mentioning the more stunning NOCEBO effect. Nocebo means, “I will harm!”


About Author

I am from Hyderabad, India. I am in an attempt of re-evolving myself somwhere in the midst of physics and communication. My educational background is physics, particularly biophysics. Scientific Communications such as grant and proposal writing, solicitation responding, technical writing, etc. in most of my professional journey are tagged with physics. I am glad to be a part of Durofy, a pool of young minds and souls!

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