Monday, August 30, 2004

More Mind Over Matter Medicine

By Randall Fitzgerald
Phenomena Magazine

(Click on headline for original source)

Intensely held beliefs, expectations, and fears shape our experiences of healing, often determining whether we will fully and rapidly recover from ailments, or whether our health will decline and even result in death.

After decades of denial and scoffing by the medical establishment, this psycho-physical phenomenon is finally being recognized and documented by mainstream medical science researchers. Just in the past three years a surge of research activity into the relationship between placebos and healing has emerged with results that provide a glimpse at the mind-over-illness potential existing within each of us.

Here is a sampling of those fascinating findings:

--Six patients with Parkinson’s, a degenerative disease whose symptoms include muscle rigidity, tremors, and slowness of movement, received either placebo sugar pills or the drug apomorphine, which releases dopamine into the brain. Dopamine scarcity is thought to cause the symptoms. Patients in this study weren’t informed if they were absorbing the placebo or the drug medication.

In every patient given a placebo, the patient’s brain produced dopamine at a level comparable to that produced in patients who took the medication. Scientists at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who conducted this study in 2001, speculated that either a ‘non-specific faith’ on the part of placebo patients was responsible for the effects, a kind of mind/matter mechanism unknown to science. Or some type of physiological memory, a Pavlovian response, occurred in which the body responded to an expected reward based on previous experiences with medication.

--That last explanation was seemingly undermined by a subsequent study. A team of medical researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles used a brain imaging technique called quantitative electroencephalography to monitor the brain activity of 51 patients suffering major depression. Over a nine-week period in 2001, these patients were given either a placebo pill or an antidepressant medication.

Nearly half of patients given placebos reported improvements in their mood, a rate almost comparable in number to those given antidepressants who reported mood elevation. But the bigger surprise for scientists came when the brain scans revealed that placebos created a dramatic change in brain activity. “We now know that a placebo is, very definitely, an active treatment condition,” declared Professor Andrew Leuchter, writing in The American Journal of Psychiatry.


--At the University of Turin Medical School in Italy, a group of Parkinson’s patients were given a salt solution placebo and then had the neurons of their brain scanned through surgically implanted electrodes. Their neurons responded in exactly the same way as when they had earlier received a drug prescribed to ease their symptoms by releasing dopamine. “It’s the first time we’ve seen the placebo effect at the single neuron level,” wrote Fabrizio Benedetti in his 2004 paper for Nature Neuroscience.

A final study that may offer a key to the placebo effect was presented to the annual Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting this past May in San Francisco. A team of Stanford University researchers found that people can learn to suppress pain, and possibly lessen depression and other ailments, when a new biofeedback technique shows them the activity in the pain-control region of their own brains.

Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (MRI), eight volunteers were able to see their brain activity, represented as a flame on a screen, in the brain area known to modulate both the intensity and emotional impact of pain. Each volunteer received painful heat on the palm of one hand while attempting to increase or decrease the signal from the brain scanner. All eight volunteers successfully learned to control their own pain intensity after just three 13-minute sessions hooked up to the MRI.

Even after these sessions, the volunteers reported they maintained the ability to alter their brain activity to control pain symptoms. Neither the volunteers nor the scientists who tested them could explain how this was possible.

Taken together, these studies suggest that each of us has our own internal pharmacy, and we can, with enough belief, faith, or training, release these drugs inside ourselves at will to cure ailments and bolster our immune systems. The implications could revolutionize our understanding of medicine and health, an advance in wisdom especially needed during this time in our history when escalating medical costs, and a dependence on medical technology, has mostly robbed us of the ability to exercise choice, fiscal restraint, and self-sufficiency.

In my next column, we will consider the placebo effect’s equally potent ‘evil twin,’ the belief catalyst called ‘nocebo,’ a Latin word meaning ‘I will harm,’ that enables people to literally scare themselves to death.

Randall Fitzgerald is a Phenomena senior editor and the author of seven books on a variety of subjects. You can find out more about his mind research by visiting his website at

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