Bioethics Blogs

Prescribing the Placebo Effect

By Sarika Sachdeva
This post was written as part of a class assignment from students who took a neuroethics course with Dr. Rommelfanger in Paris of Summer 2016. 

Sarika Sachdeva is an undergraduate junior at Emory studying Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology and Economics. She is involved with research on stimulant abuse and addiction under Dr. Leonard Howell at Yerkes National Primate Research Center. 
In 2006, Dr. Ted Kaptchuk designed a clinical drug trial to evaluate a new pain pill in patients with severe arm pain. Participants in the study were assigned to receive either the pill or an acupuncture treatment for several weeks. Dr. Kaptchuk found that the people who received acupuncture ended up with more pain relief than those who had taken the pain pill. This difference was surprising, not because the pain pill was expected to be more effective, but because neither treatment was real- the pain pills contained cornstarch and the acupuncture was done with false needles that never pierced the skin.

Placebos are often considered baseline measurements, used as the standard scientific method to determine if a drug is actually making a biological difference or if its effects are just ‘inside the head’ and no better than a sugar pill (Anderson 2013). Utilizing the placebo effect as a form of treatment carries a stigma: only 0.3% of physicians admit to regularly prescribing them, in contrast with data that indicates around 50% of physicians actually do (Rommelfanger 2013).
Image courtesy of Pixabay
Recently, however, there has been a growing body of evidence that placebos produce real physiological changes, making them an active treatment not unlike ibuprofen, aspirin, or other traditional pharmaceuticals.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.