Is the placebo effect a biochemical process?

Around the 1300s, the word ‘placebo’ first emerged in a Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible, with the primary definition ‘to walk’. In the mid of the 1700s, the term placebo started to be used as medical jargon.

After a quarter-century of hard work, there are much evidences to show its effect. Give patient a sugar pill, and they have shown results especially if they have one of the chronic, stress related issues that register the strongest placebo effects and if the treatment is given by someone in whom they have trust then their condition will improve. Tell anyone that a normal milkshake is a diet drink, and he will respond to it as if the drink is low in fat. Get the patient up from the surgery and tell him that arthroscopic repair has been done, and his knee gets better even if all you did was nothing at all. Give a drug a desired name, and it can work great.

Depression, back pain, chemotherapy related malaise, a migraine, stress related disorder and there are the list of health conditions that respond to placebos is advancing.But as widespread as the placebo experience is, and as many researches demonstrate its effect but it has yet to become part of the doctor’s standard procedure. One of the reasons can be that; its mechanisms are still a bit of puzzle. Without a clear understanding of how it operates, doctors can’t know when to deploy it, and how.

At the moment most of the researchers are without explanations and believe in its traditional belief of being psychological in nature, focusing on mechanisms like expectancy, the set of beliefs that a person brings into treatment and the type of conditioning that Ivan Pavlov first explained more than a century ago. These theories, which shows that the mind acts upon the body to produce physical responses, tend to make doctors and researchers believe in the scientific tradition as insufficiently scientific to lend reliability to the placebo effect. “What makes our research believable to doctors?” ask Ted Kaptchuk, head of Harvard Medical School’s Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter. “It’s the molecules. They love that stuff.” According to, Kaptchuk’s theory, which shows that the placebo effect is a result of the complicated conscious and non conscious processes planted in the doctor and patient relationship and without them, placebo researchers cannot gain hold in medical system.

On the basis of the talks at the conference shows that this might be about to alter. On the basis of functional magnetic resonance imaging (f.M.R.I.) and other precise surveillance techniques, Kaptchuk and his colleagues began to explain a group of biochemical processes that may finally indicate how placebos process work and why they are more effectual for some people, and some disorders. The molecules appear to be trending and their emergence may reveal basic deficiencies in the way we know the body’s healing techniques.

According to Kathryn Hall’s novel way of thinking, the placebo effect is not just some constant to be taken out from the drug effect but basically it is complex interplay among genes, drugs and mind.

But Kaptchuk was uncomfortable with Hall’s discovery. He feels that placebo effect can’t be totally based on molecules. “Once you start measuring the placebo effect in a quantitative way,” he says, “you’re transforming it to be something other than what it is. You suck out what was previously there and turn it into science.” Reduced to its molecules, he fears, the placebo effect may become “yet another thing on the conveyor belt of routinized care.”

We can say that the new researchers are focusing on the biochemical basis of the placebo effect and which is hope of possibility for western medicine.

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