MAY 08, 2017 11:15 AM PDT

Can a Placebo Mend a Broken Heart?


Placebo pills are designed to have no effect. Yet, when participants who recently endured a breakup were given a saline spray disguised as drugs that can alleviate heartache, these participants somehow felt less sad and had less pain. For better or for worse, the results suggest mind tricks are sometimes more potent than we imagine.

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Experiments are often done comparing a treated group to a control group. The treated group is the one that receives any changes, while the control group is untreated, representing normal steady state. While the same setup is used in clinical trials, doctors usually give the control group a placebo pill, a treatment that mimics the actual drug in every way but lacks the crucial active compound. Doctors do this consciously to prevent the patients' personal biases from convoluting the data results. The goal is to ascertain a drug's effects relative to the placebo baseline.

In the recent study, however, the goal was to assess whether a placebo could produce a quantitative shift in participant’s level of pain. All participants in the study reported experiencing a recent breakup, and all were given a saline spray. However, only half of the group were told the saline spray contained active drugs to alleviate sadness and heartache.

As it turns out, the mere suggestion of the spray’s potential power was enough to cause those participants to not only feel better, but also feel less pain in response to a heat stimulus.

The results add more evidence to the power of sugar pills. That is, although the placebo pills shouldn't act on the patient's symptoms in any ways, some patients report getting better from these sugar pills. And it's more than just a mind trick - the placebo effect can actually induce the brain to produce pain-relieving chemicals. Researchers also found that though placebos are non-treatment pills, some actually work better than others: Complicated machines that do nothing apparently have a higher placebo effect than injections or pills that also do nothing.

But it’s important to remember why doctors aren’t prescribing placebo pills left and right. First, changes induced by the placebo are often limited to subjective experiences. That is, a sugar pill could make you feel better, but it can’t magically shrink a tumor or open up a clogged artery. Second, even if placebo pills are as potent as some results suggest, would you be willing to have your doctor lie to you outside the context of a clinical trial? Probably not, since this system would seriously jeopardize the trust between the doctor and the patient. I mean, how can you ever trust any prescription by your doctor again, if this were allowed?

Ultimately, experiments like these highlight how prone we are to suggestion. And that could be a good thing - if we believe we can get better, that may well just happen!

Additional source: Popular Science

About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at
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