Placebo Effect: It’s the Real Thing!

I’ve long wanted to post a series of notes on the placebo effect after realizing some of the leading scientists at recent conferences had a total misconception of this effect.

In a clinical trial, it is important to have a double blind study to control for the placebo effect. Everyone in a study will do better on the average. When I was a student in biostatistics at the Stanford Medical School, every patient in the hospital was put on a study for this reason. They get better attention. Medical error will be significantly reduced. The attention will produce a more positive emotional state which has been shown in clinical trials to improve immune function. There are many more powerful effects lumped into this placebo category and some of them are only now beginning to be understood.

The fact that you must control for the placebo effect in a clinical trial has led some scientists who should know better to conclude that the placebo effect is a fake, not a real effect. Placebo effects are real and they can be as strong or stronger than the most powerful drugs. There is substantial research accumulating on therapies like acupuncture that show that pressure or pricking the body in specific places causes major changes in brain chemistry as repeatedly shown in brain scans by researchers in China and the United States. These changes in brain function can induce a real healing effect.

The same effect has been documented for reflexology (applying pressure to points on the body, particularly the feet) and this is why one of the most effective and simple solutions to many emotional problems is EFT, a process that involves simple tapping of meridian points on the body with the fingers. I’ve seen emotional conflicts of 30 years disappear in 60 seconds by using this technique.

Meanwhile, research accumulating of affects of acupuncture on brain chemistry, is starting to be front page news. This research serves as a good model to dispel antiquated notions that lump acupuncture, as well as other techniques, in the category of a fake “placebo effect.”

Acupuncture’s secret: Blood flow to brain

By Marilyn Elias, USA TODAY

Acupuncture on pain-relief points cuts blood flow to key areas of the brain within seconds, providing the clearest explanation to date for how the ancient technique might relieve pain and treat addictions, a Harvard scientist reports today.

Although researchers still don’t fully understand how acupuncture works, “our findings may connect the dots, showing how a common pathway in the brain could make acupuncture helpful for a variety of conditions,” says radiologist Bruce Rosen of Harvard Medical School. He’ll release the findings at the American Psychosomatic Society meeting in Orlando.

Acupuncture modulates the limbic system and subcortical gray structures of the human brain: evidence from fMRI studies in normal subjects

Hui KK, Liu J, Makris N, Gollub RL, Chen AJ, Moore CI, Kennedy DN, Rosen BR, Kwong KK.

MGH-NMR Center, Department of Radiology, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston 02129, USA.

Hum Brain Mapp. 2000;9(1):13-25

Acupuncture, an ancient therapeutic technique, is emerging as an important modality of complementary medicine in the United States. The use and efficacy of acupuncture treatment are not yet widely accepted in Western scientific and medical communities. Demonstration of regionally specific, quantifiable acupuncture effects on relevant structures of the human brain would facilitate acceptance and integration of this therapeutic modality into the practice of modern medicine. Research with animal models of acupuncture indicates that many of the beneficial effects may be mediated at the subcortical level in the brain. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the effects of acupuncture in normal subjects and to provide a foundation for future studies on mechanisms of acupuncture action in therapeutic interventions. Acupuncture needle manipulation was performed at Large Intestine 4 (LI 4, Hegu) on the hand in 13 subjects [Stux, 1997]. Needle manipulation on either hand produced prominent decreases of fMRI signals in the nucleus accumbens, amygdala, hippocampus, parahippocampus, hypothalamus, ventral tegmental area, anterior cingulate gyrus (BA 24), caudate, putamen, temporal pole, and insula in all 11 subjects who experienced acupuncture sensation. In marked contrast, signal increases were observed primarily in the somatosensory cortex. The two subjects who experienced pain instead of acupuncture sensation exhibited signal increases instead of decreases in the anterior cingulate gyrus (BA 24), caudate, putamen, anterior thalamus, and posterior insula. Superficial tactile stimulation to the same area elicited signal increases in the somatosensory cortex as expected, but no signal decreases in the deep structures. These preliminary results suggest that acupuncture needle manipulation modulates the activity of the limbic system and subcortical structures. We hypothesize that modulation of subcortical structures may be an important mechanism by which acupuncture exerts its complex multisystem effects.

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