The Effectiveness of Placebo and Nocebo: An Experiment

Khryss | Published 2017-10-22 09:33

Who knew that value information about a drug can strongly affect its effects?  A new study just found that side effects of an expensive-looking drug is viewed to be worse than cheap ones. This phenomenon is called the nocebo effect.

While the more known placebo effect makes some people feel better when they’re given a controlled treatment, the nocebo effect is its opposite--it makes some people feel worse. Previous studies already showed the effectiveness of placebo effect on expensive-looking drugs. Now, researchers from Cambridge, Hamburg and Boulder wanted to know if this is also true for the nocebo effect.

Researchers fabricated two labels of fake creams used to treat itchy skin: one label looked like a generic medication while the other looked like an expensive pharmaceutical label, similar to Pfizer.

The participants were divided into two, and were shown one of the two creams. They were then told that the cream’s side effect is to increase a person’s sensitivity to pain. The researchers then applied the cream to the arms of the participants and exposed them to increasing levels of heat. Every participant is then asked to rate the feeling.

During the pain test, the researchers scanned fMRI images of the participant’s brains, spinal cord and brainstem. They found that depending on the cream given, a specific area in the prefrontal cortex and the periaqueductal gray--the primary control center for descending pain modulation located in the midbrain--lights up.

Moreover, expensive looking cream were shown to give participants more pain than those of the cheaper-looking ones. While they are actually the same cream, the expensive-looking cream raised the pain for nearly 30 percent more than the average while the cheaper-looking ones only raised the pain level by 3 percent. The researchers concluded that the price not only leads to placebo responses but to nocebo responses as well.

According to Alexandra Tinnermann, one of the authors of the study, these findings may help doctors, nurses, and pharmacists talk to patients about medication to enable patients to be aware and possibly minimize nocebo effect.

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