Placebo effect examined - why does sham medicine work?

Scientifically proven power of self-healing

Mock medicines without active ingredients can relieve pain and support healing processes if patients do not know that they have been given placebo. Why this works has so far remained largely unclear. A German-American team of researchers has now carried out a study to investigate which physical mechanisms are responsible for the pain-relieving effects of the dummy medicines.

Scientists from the Medical Faculty of the University of Duisburg-Essen (UDE) worked with US colleagues to analyze the so-called placebo effect. In around 600 images that were created using a magnetic resonance tomograph, the researchers were able to document the mechanisms that take place in the body when a dummy drug is taken. The study results were recently published in the journal "Jama Neurology".

Placebo effect demonstrated

Among other things, the researchers wanted to find out whether the placebo effect changes the transmission of pain in the brain. “We were actually able to demonstrate this on the basis of the data; however, this effect is very small, ”comments Professor Dr. Ulrike Bingel from the Department of Neurology at the University Hospital Essen in a press release on the study results.

Small effect with big effect

The professor doubts that the slight change in pain management is solely responsible for the positive effects of bogus medication. "That alone cannot be responsible for the extent of the pain-relieving effect," says Bingel. According to the expert, the brain networks that are involved in cognitive and emotional pain processing must also be considered.

Fundamentally different mode of action than real pain reliever

In their investigations, the researchers were able to show that sham medications work fundamentally different than real pain relievers, such as opioids. "The biggest difference is that opioids influence the conduction of pain in the brain ten times more than placebo treatments and with the same analgesic - pain relieving effect," adds Dr. Matthias Zunhammer. The team of scientists was also able to show that imaging techniques can be used to differentiate placebo effects from the effects of pharmacological substances.

More new insights into the placebo effect

Recently, scientists from the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa presented the latest findings on the placebo effect, in which they demonstrated the previously undiscovered power of self-healing. Since stress is involved in many disease-causing mechanisms, the researchers rolled up the field from behind and examined whether positive experiences contribute to the self-healing of diseases. As Professor Asya Rolls reported, the placebo effect is still largely misunderstood and the healing potential that it emits is largely unused. (vb)

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