I’m sure you are all familiar with the “placebo effect”, the ability of an inactive substance to produce biological effects. The usual explanation is that the placebo substance activates the patient’s “belief” that a treatment is being received and this belief, somehow, has restorative powers.
The placebo effect is too strong to ignore so when pharmaceutical companies test new drugs they divide the patients into two groups: one that receives the drug and one that receives a look-alike placebo. It isn’t enough for the candidate pill to do something, it must actually be better than the placebo in order to receive FDA approval. The truly amazing thing is that, according to this recent Wired article by Steve Silberman, it appears as if placebos are getting harder and harder to beat.
As an example of the difficulties drug companies are facing, the article states:
“Last November, a new type of gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease,
championed by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, was abruptly withdrawn
from Phase II trials after unexpectedly tanking against placebo. A
stem-cell startup called Osiris Therapeutics got a drubbing on Wall
Street in March, when it suspended trials of its pill for Crohn’s
disease, an intestinal ailment, citing an “unusually high” response to
placebo. Two days later, Eli Lilly broke off testing of a much-touted
new drug for schizophrenia when volunteers showed double the expected
level of placebo response.”
Notice that the problem is not simply failure to beat placebo, it is the increasing effectiveness of placebo treatments. Does this mean that it is getting easier to activate the belief network in the mind? Perhaps it means that the belief network is becoming more effective at activating healing responses in the body? Perhaps drug companies are developing better placebos?
Read the Wired article. And, if you would like a really truly amazing audio introduction to the placebo effect, listen to this podcast from The Radio Lab (May 18, 2007).