Sugar pills may reduce chronic pain in certain patients as effectively as any powerful drug on the market, a study claims. Scientists at Northwestern University in the US have shown they can reliably predict which chronic pain patients will respond to a sugar placebo pill based on the patients’ brain anatomy and psychological characteristics. “Their brain is already tuned to respond,” said A Vania Apkarian, a professor at Northwestern University.
“They have the appropriate psychology and biology that puts them in a cognitive state that as soon as you say, ‘this may make your pain better,’ their pain gets better,” Apkarian said. “You can tell them, ‘I’m giving you a drug that has no physiological effect but your brain will respond to it,'” he said. Researchers said that it is much better to give someone a non-active drug rather than an active drug and get the same result.
Most pharmacological treatments have long-term adverse effects or addictive properties. Placebo becomes as good an option for treatment as any drug we have on the market, they said. A sugar pill prescription for chronic pain patients would result in vast cost savings for patients and the healthcare system, Apkarian said.
In the study published in the journal Nature Communications, about 60 chronic back pain patients were randomised into two arms of the study. In one arm, subjects did not know if they got the drug or the placebo. The other study arm included people who came to the clinic but did not get a placebo or drug. They were in the control group. The individuals whose pain decreased as a result of the sugar pill had a similar brain anatomy and psychological traits. The right side of their emotional brain was larger than the left, and they had a larger cortical sensory area than people who were not responsive to the placebo, researchers said.