This is such an interesting programme that I simply had to share!
100 people took part in a recent trial for the BBC2 Horizon programme: Can my brain cure my body? It was a back pain study but with a twist, the twist being that everyone, unknowingly, was getting placebo. The placebo effect is well studied but at the same time still something of a mystery. (Placebo = Latin “I shall please”). It is an important part of modern clinical trials, where patients are given either a placebo or an active drug (without knowing which is which) and researchers then look to see if the drug outperforms the placebo, or vice versa.
With the help of Dr Jeremy Howick, an expert on the placebo effect from the University of Oxford, the Horizon team, headed up by medical journalist Dr Michael Moseley, set out to see if they could cure real back pain with placebo pills. It would be the largest experiment of its kind ever carried out in the UK, with 100 people from Blackpool taking part.
The University of Oxford's Professor Irene Tracey told the programme that just because a placebo contains no active chemicals, does not mean the effects of taking it are not real. "The average person thinks that placebo is something that's a lie or some fakery, something where the person has been tricked and it isn't real. But science has told us, particularly over the last two decades, that it is something that is very real, it's something that we can see played out in our physiology and neurochemistry." Among other things, research has shown that taking a placebo can trigger the release of endorphins - natural painkillers that are similar in structure to morphine.