Despite we strive to understand the world, there are still many mysteries that we can not solve. One of them is the mystery of the placebo effect or phenomenon.
[Do not try this yourself] If you cause pain in someone many times a day and for many days, using morphine to control the pain until the last day of the experiment, when you will replace morphine with saline solution, it will still make the pain disappear!
This is the phenomenon of placebo: someway, sometimes, a whole nothing can be very powerful. The above experiment was conducted by Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin in Italy, who added naloxone, which blocks the effects of morphine, in saline solution on the last day of the experiment.
The striking result was that as soon as it happened, the analgesic effect of saline solution disappeared.
Thus, what exactly happens? Doctors have known for decades about the placebo phenomenon, which has been long used in homeopathy. It’s worth noting that while homeopathy is considered pseudoscience, the placebo effect is taken seriously and studied by many scholars. The naloxone effect appears to show that the placebo effect has a biochemical basis.
Benedetti’s research also showed that the placebo effect of saline solution could also reduce muscle stiffness and tremor in Parkinson’s patients. The scientist with his research team measured the activity of neurons in the brains of patients that had been given saline.
The results showed that individual neurons in the subthalamic nucleus (which is a frequent target in surgery to reverse Parkinson’s disease symptoms) began to spark more rarely when the patient was given the saline solution, which is also associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Neuronal activity decreased at the same time when an improvement in symptoms was reported: thus the saline solution seemed to have a significant therapeutic effect.
There is still much we should learn about the placebo phenomenon, but according to Benedetti one thing is clear: the mind can have an effect on the body’s biochemistry. This model can help us better understand the mind-body interaction, says the scientist.
Now researchers need to find out when and how exactly the placebo effect acts. There still may be diseases that it has no effect on. At the same time, one mechanism may be common for many different illnesses.
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