Placebos 'Could Be an Effective Agent in Their Own Right' Says NAU Professor

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"There's a lot of biology behind placebos," says NAU Associate Professor Alison Adams.

Drug trials often include placebos, which may have their own benefits and side-effects, says Northern Arizona University (NAU) Associate Professor Alison Adams in the Department of Biological Sciences.

“The placebo is a very powerful tool and the vast majority of people know absolutely nothing about it,” said Adams. “People think it’s just trickery of the brain.” In fact, it is much more than the popular notion of a useless sugar pill. According to Adams, a placebo “could potentially be an effective agent in its own right.”

Adams arrived at an interest in the topic of placebos after a four-year foray into alternative medicine. Postdoctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA, and Genentech, headquartered in South San Francisco, CA, had taken her deep into yeast genetics and cell biology. But in 2000, Adams “took a break from science” to study acupuncture in England.

“At the time, I was ready for something different,” Adams said. “I was open to whatever direction I was going in.” That openness extended to collaboration with George Lewith, a professor of health research at the University of Southampton and a longtime researcher into alternative and complementary medicines.

But Adams hadn’t left science very far behind.

“I realized there’s a lot of biology behind placebos,” Adams said. “It turns out that when you’re given a placebo pill, there’s a whole series of steps that occur physiologically.” The fresh perspective remained with Adams when she returned to science and came to NAU in 2004.

“The placebo response is something that actually gets initiated by the context of medical procedures,” Adams said. In Western medicine, seeing a doctor in a white coat helps the patient form an expectation that “the person is here to help them.”

By that reasoning, “an increased exposure of the patient to contextual factors in the clinic may maximize the innate response,” Adams said. In other words, “a doctor spending more time with the patient might be better than prescribing more pills.”

--Adapted from “NAU News”