Friday, December 22, 2006

Placebo: What Your Brain Can Do for You

The placebo effect is the measurable, observable, or felt improvement in health not attributable to treatment. This effect is believed by many people to be due to the placebo itself in some mysterious way.
So states this article on placebos and depression from the Skeptic's Dictionary, and appropriate resource. Like this UCLA article about placebo usage, it discusses how, when a patient is told they are receiving a placebo, the effectiveness often goes away. Is this because the treatment was all in their heads? Or that the depression was?

Many studies try to compensate for the "placebo effect." Others, more recently, have specifically studied this factor as a healing process. A study by Dr. Arif Khan showed, according to the New York Times, that:

It turns out that the more severely depressed people are, the less likely they are to respond to a placebo. And people with more mild depressions get better with just about all treatments, including placebos. Since most clinical trials enroll less severely depressed patients, the observed difference between the response to an antidepressant and a placebo can be misleadingly small.

Other studies, including one by Dr. Irving Kirsch, suggest that medications are nearly useless because the placebo effect is so high in depression treatment. Meanwhile, doctors wrestle with the ethics of "tricking" patients with placebos.

I think the point is not quite being realized by the scientific community. Depression is a disease that is has an effect upon the body as well, because the brain controls all things. Placebo is the brain's natural ability to repair damage to all the human systems. This process is easily interrupted by doubts and limiting beliefs. At this point in our development we have identified the process, and we recognize that it can be encouraged by presenting patients with a physical talisman, if you will, of healing; the pill. More severely depressed people need more than a sugar pill because they are so very sick their limiting beliefs extend deep into the unconscious, metastasizing like cancer. They need medications to bring them to the point where the placebo process can recover enough to even try to work.

I foresee a time when the scientific community will focus serious research on placebos, not to remove them as a variable or identify what is "in a patient's mind," but to determine how to harness our own healing ability and hone it. This research will not be conducted by drug companies, because it would not be advantageous to cure such a lucrative market for maintenance medications. It will be research into areas currently sidelined as psychology or superstition, and will tap into the true potential of the human brain.

The lucky depression patients have found other avenues to unlock these secrets, either through sugar pills or prayer or exercise or therapy, and they have been given a chance at true healing, y allowing their brains to overcome depression naturally. It's time the scientific community figures out a way to give the rest of the victims that opportunity.

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