Harnessing the placebo effect, from the Harvard Health Letter

Attitudes about the placebo effect are shifting, even in conventional medical circles, according to the April 2012 Harvard Health Letter. Recognition that the placebo can—and should—be harnessed by doctors and patients to improve medical care is replacing skepticism and suspicion that it isn't authentic.

Why is this happening? Brain scan studies have shown that in many cases there may be objective changes in the brain that explain the placebo effect, as the April issue explains.

Randomized controlled trials have increased our understanding of the placebo effect. In one study that enrolled patients with irritable bowel syndrome, researchers associated with Harvard's Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter showed that the response to a placebo—in this case, sham acupuncture—was much stronger if it was combined with attentive, empathetic interaction from the person delivering it.

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