New research shows that people who respond to placebos are more likely to respond to real antidepressants, but why?
One drug is real, and the other is fake. But they can both alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety. The placebo effect is an enigma that biologists, psychologists, and drugmakers are dying to figure out. How do these tricks of the mind actually produce medical results? And why is it that drug trials show increasing response to placebos over the past few years, but only in the United States?
People can even get addicted to fake drugs. According to the Guardian, in a study where a group of women took placebo pills for over five years, 40 percent of the women suffered withdrawal symptoms afterwards. Essentially, the medicinal and therapeutic values of placebo drugs are created in our own minds alone, and as more research is done on placebos, the weirder the phenomenon gets.
Recent research shows that placebo pills can actually predict how well a patient will respond to antidepressant medicines with active ingredients. “Those who can muster their brain's own chemical forces against depression, it appears, have a head start in overcoming its symptoms with help from a medication. But those whose brain chemistry doesn't react as much to a fake medicine, or placebo, struggle even after getting an active drug,” the University of Michigan stated in a press release.
This discovery could lead to better research on how to harness the brain’s natural response in new ways to combat psychological disorders like depression and anxiety. Although the pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t like it, using the placebo effect to unearth new treatments could be a much safer alternative to prescription drugs that are often addictive or come with bad side effects.
Marta Pecina, a research assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychiatry, said in a press release that it might be possible to develop faster-acting or better antidepressants by enhancing placebo effects.
Amazingly, studies that have tested the effects of active antidepressants against placebos suggest that 40 percent of a patient’s response is due to the placebo effect.“If 40 percent of people recover from a chronic illness without a medication, I want to know why,” Jon-Kar Zubieta, study lead and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Utah, said in the press release. “And if you respond to a medication and half your response is due to a placebo effect, we need to know what makes you different from those who don’t respond as well.”
To add to the strange development of the placebo effect, another study found that the response to placebos in chronic pain drug trials is on a rise — but only in the United States. The same trials, conducted since 1990, were also tested in Europe and Asia, but showed no changes in placebo responses in other areas of the world.
Why? Researchers speculate it may be because American placebo trials are becoming longer and larger. In 1990, the trials were averaging at four weeks long, but by 2015, the number had grown to 12 weeks. Plus, trials in the early 90s averaged fewer than 50 patients while more recent trials include an average of over 700.
The McGill University study points out that longer and larger trials tend to make it harder for pharmaceutical companies to prove that the drug being tested is more effective than treatment with a placebo, so these trials are more likely to fail.
The ever-changing effects of placebo drugs may never truly be understood. The fact that the brain can unknowingly but naturally fight against actual pain and psychological disorders is certainly one of its most peculiar features. Hopefully researchers continue to study the brain’s natural response mechanisms, creating healthier treatments than the ones dished out by pharmaceutical top dogs today.
Check out this video full of surprising facts about the strange powers of the placebo effect: