World War 2 hospital -- the kind of place that the original morphine/placebo effect was discovered.Unfortunately I’m going to cite the contents of a long, three-page story in this blog entry. Fortunately, it’s an absolutely awesome story about the curious history, convoluted present and hopeful future of the placebo effect. Even if it takes you a while to read, it’s worth reading — it takes you from the origin of placebos (salt water instead of morphine during World War 2) through to modern day drug trials, where placebos are beating pharmaceutical drugs such as anti-pain meds or anti-depressants.

It’s crazy stuff — really bat-shit crazy. The story doesn’t really go into the why, as we don’t know the answer yet — it’s amazing enough that a group has finally been formed to look into it (pharmaceutical companies, the ones with all the money when it comes to research, obviously want the placebo response to just… go away. ASAP.) – Since the beginning, the placebo has been Big Pharma’s number one enemy. To pass drug trials a new product has to beat out the placebo effect by a significant margin. In the olden days, this was apparently quite easy.

Today… well, the expert that the story focuses on, William Potter, goes as far to say that in during modern-day tests, Prozac is being beaten-out by placebos, and thus would never make it to market, if it had been invented today. The story actually begins with a story about Merck, a big pharmaceutical company: they’re testing a new anti-depressant (MK-869), and they just can’t seem to beat the placebo effect. Both the drug and the placebo effect had an equal success rate! The placebo effect is so strong at the moment that very few drugs are making it through testing and into the greedy, self-medicating hands of the public.

It’s definitely a weird one that needs to be sussed out. It’s sad that it has been ignored for so long because the body’s self-healing functions are the enemy of pharmacology. Pharmacology’s sole purpose is to dominate the central nervous system, not to aid or assist it in its curative powers. What has caused the increased placebo response? Now this is the funny bit: in realising that placebo response is different, depending on where you are in the world, Big Pharma is actually going to other countries where the placebo effect is weaker, to get their drugs approved.

It would seem that the placebo response is based on culture, society. It’s long been known that we have more faith in the trustworthy, the responsible, the professional. If I tell you I’m going to fix your computer, you’re relieved and walk away happy. If I tell you I’m going to remove your tooth, you’re going to adversely react, scream, run away — and rightfully so!

The story seems to surmise that it’s the pharmaceutical’s massive marketing campaigns that have pushed up the power of the placebo. We’re surrounded by so many reports and surveys and commercials that tell us of the efficacy of anti-depressants that we will them to work: if it works for him, it will work for me — of course, the funny bit is that most drugs have side-effects, and the placebo does not… so with placebo tests we’re told that we’re taking Prozac, our body expects it to work… and so it works. Without any of the side-effects.

And it turns out that doctors have long been prescribing placebos to patients! This one might shock you a little. If you’re on anti-depressants right now… you might actually not be on them. Doctors have long known the power of confidence and good bed-side manner. Doctors often prescribe under-powered doses to patients and tell them that it will work. And, unsurprisingly, it works — with all the potency of actual, drug-based medication. Awesome.

We can walk away from this story with two great things under our belt: a) we’ll be seeing more research into the placebo effect and the body’s self-healing powers. We’re not talking about the body’s ability to fix physical damage, but when it comes to biological imbalance, brain chemistry and ‘rewiring’, we’re capable of a lot more than we think — and b) don’t stop believing in medication. It is your belief in the power of anti-depressants that make them work, not the chemical compound itself.

If that’s not food for thought… I don’t know what is.

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I am a tall, hairy, British writer who blogs about technology, photography, travel, and whatever else catches my eye.