For a phenomenon that has been known about for hundreds of years, there is still much to learn about the placebo effect – when a person’s health improves after taking a dummy treatment like a sugar pill. It is thought that the expectation of a positive outcome is behind it, and that a negative expectation is involved in its unwelcome opposite, the nocebo effect, which is when symptoms worsen. But questions remain about exactly how the mind affects the body in this way and why some people experience the effect more strongly than others.
Luana Colloca is among those tackling such questions. A neuroscientist and the director of the Placebo Beyond Opinions Center at the University of Maryland School of Nursing in Baltimore, Colloca and her colleagues have shown how specific gene variants can shape the extent of someone’s placebo response. They are now looking into how best to harness such effects to help soothe pain, which could decrease the use of prescription opioid drugs and the risk of addiction to them. They are also exploring the use of virtual reality, with results published last year showing that it can successfully reduce perceived pain and anxiety levels.
Colloca has rounded up all the latest findings on the placebo and nocebo effects in a book that she has co-edited called Placebo Effects Through the Lens of Translational Research. She spoke to New Scientist about her work on pain relief, whether the placebo effect can help in treating mental health conditions and how it impacts the way we…