Understanding the biological basis for the placebo effect may help medical professionals maximize people’s health, suggests Barry S. Oken, MD, a professor in the department of neurology at Oregon Health & Science University. Oken’s review of placebo-effect research appeared earlier this year in the journal Brain (2008;doi:10.1093/ brain/awn116).
The placebo effect refers to a “physiological state anticipating and contributing to the occurrence of some future health-related outcome through learning, conditioning or other related process,” according to Oken. Patient expectations have an influence on results, regardless of the sources for these expectations. A placebo can be any clinical intervention—words, gestures, pills, devices, even surgery.
Some studies show that administration of a placebo activates certain brain regions. Oken recommends improving clinical trial design to better elicit and isolate placebo-effect responses. With a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms that produce these results, he proposes, healthcare providers may be better able to proactively utilize methods that achieve these beneficial effects.