An exciting study has just been published in The Journal of Neuroscience, documenting the release of natural painkillers based solely on the belief, or mental attitude, of the patient -- the first published, quantifiable proof that mind indeed controls matter.
A report on the findings follows.
If You Think You'll Feel Better, You WillBy Steven ReinbergHealthDay ReporterWEDNESDAY, Aug. 24 (HealthDayNews) --
Pain relief may just be mind over matter.According to new research, the belief that a pill will relieve pain is enough to cause the brain to release its own natural painkillers.The finding is the first direct evidence that the brain's own pain-fighting chemicals, endorphins, have a role in the phenomenon known as the "placebo effect" -- and that this response corresponds with a reduction in feelings of pain."This is telling us that placebos are powerful," said study lead author Dr. Jon-Kar Zubieta, an associate professor of psychiatry and radiology at the University of Michigan. "When there is a belief that something may take place, this belief actually activates systems in your brain that are directly modifying experience. If you receive a drug and you believe it is active, the drug itself might not be doing very much."
The report appears in the Aug. 24 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience."We looked at the response of pain control systems in the brain," Zubieta said. "We observed that a placebo that was believed to be an agonistic agent was able to enhance the release of these anti-pain endogenous opioids."For the study, Zubieta's team induced pain by injecting concentrated salt water solution into the jaws of 14 healthy young men who agreed to the experiment. The injections were given while the men underwent positron emission tomography (PET) scans.During one scan, the men were told they would receive pain medicine. Instead, they were given a placebo. Then every 15 seconds during the subsequent scans, the men were asked to rate the intensity of their pain on a scale of 0 to 100. After the experiment, they provided more detailed pain ratings.
The researchers found that after telling the men that the placebo was coming, the amount of concentrated salt water needed to maintain the pain increased. This indicated that sensitivity to pain was reduced. So thinking they were getting a pain drug actually allowed the participants to tolerate more pain, the researchers said.Zubieta classified nine of the men as "high placebo responders" because they exhibited a strong placebo effect. The other five were classified as "low placebo responders."In addition, the researchers were able to show the power of the placebo effect. "There was more relief in response to this inactive medication as a function of belief," Zubieta said. "In fact, in some areas of the brain, the release was related to how much they believed the drug was going to be effective.
"Zubieta believes these findings tell you something about how humans function. "Understanding these mind-body connections are important," he said. "There are many treatments that are believed to be effective, when in reality they may not be more effective than placebo."Harnessing the placebo effect may have some positive therapeutic applications, Zubieta said. "You want to enhance the placebo effect under some circumstances," he said. "And in some others you want to reduce it --like when you do a clinical trial.
"One expert thinks the findings are important, but miss the larger point."It's clearly another step in elucidating these mechanisms, which is really terrific," said Daniel E. Moerman, the William E. Stirton Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan in Dearborn, and the author of Meaning, Medicine and the Placebo Effect. But he added, the question of a mind-body connection as a separation between the two "is not even 16th-century quality thinking," Moerman said. "Socrates did better than that.""It's only the technology that has made this an interesting area to study," Moerman added. "You can scan this stuff now. You can see it, so there it is.
"SOURCES: Jon-Kar Zubieta, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and radiology, University Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor; Daniel E. Moerman, Ph.D., the William E. Stirton Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Dearborn, and author, Meaning, Medicine and the Placebo Effect; Aug. 24, 2005, Journal of Neuroscience. Copyright © 2005 ScoutNews LLC. All rights reserved.Reference to the published results in The Journal of Neuorscience:The Journal of Neuroscience, August 24, 2005, 25(34)Endogenous Opiates and the Placebo Effect Jon-Kar Zubieta, Joshua A. Bueller, Lisa R. Jackson, David J. Scott, Yanjun Xu, Robert A. Koeppe, Thomas E. Nichols, and Christian S. Stohler (see pages 7754-7762) Much to the chagrin of drug designers and sometimes to the benefit of patients, placebos can have powerful effects on medical management. This week, Zubieta et al. add to the evidence that the placebo effect on the subjective assessment of pain involves the endogenous opioid system. During a pain challenge, volunteer subjects were given an intravenous injection that they were led to believe might have analgesic properties. The painful stimulus, the infusion of a few milliliters of hypertonic saline into a jaw muscle, was adjusted to maintain constant pain intensity and to prevent tissue swelling. The authors used positron emission tomography in combination with a µ-opioid receptor-selective radiotracer to examine the brain regions activated and the contribution of µ-opioid receptors. The placebo induced activation in the rostral anterior cingulate, dorsolateral frontal cortex, insular cortex, and nucleus accumbens in parallel with lower ratings of pain intensity.