What makes medication 2-4x as effective? Adding a placebo:
Researchers used the placebo effect to successfully treat psoriasis patients with one quarter to one half of their usual dose of a widely used steroid medication, according to an early study published online today in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. Early results in human patients suggest that the new technique could improve treatment for several chronic diseases that involve mental state or the immune system, including asthma, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain.
By designing treatment regimens that mix active drug and placebo, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center hope to maximize drug benefits, reduce side effects, increase the number of patients who take their medicine and extend the use of drugs otherwise limited by addiction risk or toxicity. Using a fraction of the usual drug dose to get the same effect could also make possible a dramatic and timely reduction in healthcare costs, according to the authors.
The publication is a product of decades of research in the emerging field of “psychoneuro-immunology,” which holds that the ability of the human immune system to fight disease is closely linked with a person’s mind. Thoughts and moods are captured in neurochemicals that cause the release of hormones which interact with disease-fighting cells.
The current research team chose psoriasis for their first human experiments because it is chronic, gets worse when patients feel stress and involves the immune system. The condition causes pain and disability in four million Americans as inherited traits and irritants cause the immune system to trigger the too fast production of skin cells, resulting in red, scaly patches of dead skin.
“Our study provides evidence that the placebo effect can make possible the treatment of psoriasis with an amount of drug that should be too small to work,” said Robert Ader, Ph.D., M.D.(hc), distinguished university professor in the University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry. “While these results are preliminary, we believe the medical establishment needs to recognize the mind’s reaction to medication as a powerful part of many drug effects, and start taking advantage of it,” said Ader, principal investigator of the study. The placebo effect, obviously, cannot help unconscious patients, or replace substances that the body itself is unable to produce, he added. In the absence of functioning islet cells, for example, placebos cannot stimulate the release of insulin in a Type l diabetic.
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