Science of placebos seen from alternative point of view

November 2, 2012
Drug trials often include placebos, which may have their own benefits and side-effects.

(Medical Xpress)—With the perspective of a scientist trained in acupuncture, Alison Adams is well positioned to explain why placebos may be misunderstood—and why they should be understood in the first place.

"The placebo is a very powerful tool and the vast majority of people know absolutely nothing about it," said Adams, associate professor of biology at Northern Arizona University. "People think it's just trickery of the brain."

Dispelling the popular notion of a useless sugar pill, Adams said that a placebo "could potentially be an effective agent in its own right."

Adams arrived at an interest in the topic after a four-year foray into . Postdoctoral work at MIT and had taken her deep into yeast genetics and . 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 a collaboration with George Lewith, a professor of health research at the University of Southampton and a longtime researcher into alternative and .

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 , there's a whole series of steps that occur physiologically."

The fresh perspective remained with Adams when she returned to science, coming to NAU in 2004. Later she spent her sabbatical working on a project with Lewith studying how placebos are portrayed in the literature of drug trials. Their research, published in PLOS Clinical Trials, concluded that patients in such trials need better information about the benefits and side-effects of placebos.

Looking back to the lessons of acupuncture, Adams said, helps explain the origins of the "." In a word, it's all about context.

"The 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."

The contextual relationship explains why alternative medicine is so popular and effective, Adams said.

In , for example, an initial consultation often runs 90 minutes and includes a case history ranging from the details of the patient's birth to "different aches and pains throughout life. In Chinese medicine, a huge amount of attention is paid to little details."

Today Adams sees herself as an educator at the intersection of science and alternative medicine—an "unusual position," she said, but one that offers her an important role.

"Because I understand the world of science as well as alternative medicine, I can communicate with both groups," Adams said.

She's doing just that in a freshman seminar, Western and Alternative Medicine, that draws a diverse group of students.

"We examine studies that look at the efficacy of various forms of alterative medicine and Western medicine," Adams said. "It helps the students appreciate that the body has tremendous self-healing powers."

More information: www.plosone.org/article/info%3 … journal.pone.0039661

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Study suggests ending opioid epidemic will take years

July 20, 2017
The question of how to stem the nation's opioid epidemic now has a major detailed response. A new study chaired by University of Virginia School of Law Professor Richard Bonnie provides extensive recommendations for curbing ...

Team-based model reduces prescription opioid use among patients with chronic pain by 40 percent

July 17, 2017
A new, team-based, primary care model is decreasing prescription opioid use among patients with chronic pain by 40 percent, according to a new study out of Boston Medical Center's Grayken Center for Addiction Medicine, which ...

Private clinics' peddling of unproven stem cell treatments is unsafe and unethical

July 7, 2017
Stem cell science is an area of medical research that continues to offer great promise. But as this week's paper in Science Translational Medicine highlights, a growing number of clinics around the globe, including in Australia, ...

Popular heartburn drugs linked to higher death risk

July 4, 2017
Popular heartburn drugs called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) have been linked to a variety of health problems, including serious kidney damage, bone fractures and dementia. Now, a new study from Washington University School ...

Most reproductive-age women using opioids also use another substance

June 30, 2017
The majority of reproductive-age and pregnant women who use opioids for non-medical purposes also use at least one other substance, ranging from nicotine or alcohol to cocaine, according to a University of Pittsburgh Graduate ...

At-risk chronic pain patients taper opioids successfully with psychological tools

June 28, 2017
Psychological support and new coping skills are helping patients at high risk of developing chronic pain and long-term, high-dose opioid use taper their opioids and rebuild their lives with activities that are meaningful ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.