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article imageOp-Ed: Deeper research into 'placebo effect' as medicine worth funding

By Elizabeth Cunningham Perkins     Jan 7, 2012 in Health
The placebo effect -- felt, measured or observed improvements in patients' medical conditions attributed to a fake medications or treatments -- may cause lasting improvements and be tweaked into valuable medicines, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The WSJ's research summary on placebos as effective medical interventions, even wonder treatments, only scratched the surface of the still mostly unproven placebo effect possibilities, however. The biological and psychological processes underlying how placebos work -- or don't -- should be uncovered, pinpointed and understood definitively through a campaign of large, well designed, replicated scientific studies, to be funded privately, publicly and through public-private partnerships.
Scientific American reported that belief is biology-changing medicine, and faith can transform sham treatments for diverse ailments (from life-diminishing anxiety, chronic pain, headaches and arthritis to life-threatening cancers) into a mind-driven turnarounds, and pointed out that placebos appear to work for skeptics too.
According to the Skeptic's Dictionary, scientific study could explain away most apparent placebo-powers by identifying natural and medical causes for the effects, such as spontaneous remissions, erroneous diagnoses and flawed research designs.
Still, as Digital Journal reported, placebos are widely prescribed by physicians to calm patients (who have been told they are receiving placebos) -- in Latin "placebo" meant "I shall please" -- and medical researchers have begun investigating the placebo effect as a legitimate treatment option for angina pain, Parkinson's Disease, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and a wide range of other medical problems, and have begun studying more controversial placebo practices such as giving phony injections and performing sham surgeries.
While encouraging reports about experimental and clinical placebo effect results have appeared in peer reviewed journals and the news media more and more over the past decade, stirring hopes that a medicine chest of side-effect-free and less expensive treatment options will become available soon, too much of the research into placebos has been based upon anecdotal evidence -- individual case studies or patient self-reporting on surveys, for example -- or upon limiting research designs, such as small sample sizes or lack of double-blind, or even single-blind, experimental procedures, to be scientifically conclusive so far, as ScienceDaily reported in July.
Since placebo effects have shown promise as effective alternatives for doctors and their patients, and because scientists in many fields have stated finding evidence that placebos work is doable, claiming uncovering cellular and molecular mechanisms at play in the placebo effect could lead to the discovery of new remedies and cures for diverse, hard-to-treat medical disorders and diseases, now is the time to focus and boost careful, evidence-based research into the medical value of placebos and the placebo effect.
But the fact that some researchers have found placebos harmful to patients, as ScienceDaily reported in May, is arguably an even more compelling reason to step up placebo effect research.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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