Future Drug Science: A Permanent Placebo Effect, Facebook Helps Users Kick the Habit

New research suggests the placebo effect works even when patients know, and that Facebook could help addicts kick the habit.



The placebo effect works even when patients know they are taking a fake, new research shows. And another study says Facebook could help addicts kick the habit.

The placebo science came out of an investigation run by the Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, expanding on the well-known phenomenon of the placebo effect where patients respond well to “drugs” even if they’re actually taking fake medication. The ethics of the act are somewhat gray–essentially doctors are deceiving their patients into taking what they believe to be potent medication, and excusing the deceit by knowing that it actually helps patient’s health. This concern drove an investigation to see if placebos could be administered “respectfully.” The problem with this theory is that if you “respectfully” tell someone they’re taking a fake pill, then the entire basis of the placebo effect is thrown away.

80 irritable bowel patients were divided into two groups, much like any standard placebo investigation, but in this case the control group were given no medication, and the placebo group were given typical sugar pill substitutes for real meds, to be taken twice daily. The group was told that the pills were fake, containing no active ingredients and were absolutely inert, the bottle had the word “placebo” printed on it, and the patients were told they didn’t have to believe in the placebo effect–they merely had to take them and that was enough. The patients were monitored for three weeks, and at the end nearly twice as many patients treated with placebos said their symptoms were relieved compared to the no-pill control group. The rate of “improvement” roughly equated to the success rate of the most powerful IBS medication.

In other words, and somewhat to the researcher’s astonishment, the placebo effect appears to have worked even while the patients were told they weren’t getting any real medication. The potential implications are so enormous that the researchers are already cautioning that the study is very limited in size, and merely acts to incite bigger and deeper studies into the effect. But considering that the U.S. pharmaceuticals business is worth hundreds of billions of dollars (some $235 billion in 2008), and the companies spend tens of billions in advertising their products–let alone billions in research and development–this research is going to be of great interest to Pfizer, Eli Lilly and their ilk.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the drug-taking coin, where governments have failed, it’s possible that Facebook could help drug abusers kick their habit. A new experiment in Amsterdam is investigating if being befriended by strangers on Facebook, in a kind of active but one-step-removed intervention, will actually help addicts ditch their reliance on drugs. An addict named Monica is leading the campaign, wearing a coat with text that invites people to friend her via a special Facebook page.

The idea seems to be that by affirming positive images of helpful people in society, and gaining support from strangers–even via the digital medium of Facebook–drug addicts self-confidence will get a significant boos and may help inspire them to quit the drugs. Monica’s page sets out the terms and conditions: “Don’t be afraid! If you decide to become my friend you will get an interesting peek into my daily life (with a maximum of two posts a day). I will NEVER ask you for money.”


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