"It seems they had to believe that they were getting medication in order to feel better," says Dr. Andrew Leuchter, lead author of one of the papers and director of adult psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital. "When we told the placebo subjects they had been on placebo, their mood deteriorated, in many cases very rapidly."
A Treatment Option?
Because withholding information is a key component to guaranteeing the success while a patient is on a placebo, it seems unlikely that it will be used for the active treatment of depression.
"Placebo as a treatment is not done anymore. Because of our current patient-centered ethics and because of the rejection of paternalism in medicine in general, it's no longer socially acceptable. I think that a great deal has been lost. A lot of good that can be done is placebogenic good," says Bodkin.
However, there is much that can be learned from understanding why placebos may be working. The findings of this research shed some light on the power of interpersonal contact and therapy when treating depression.
"The fact that [the subjects] came into treatment and went through all of the different components of the research milieu … including the interpersonal contacts, changed their brain function," says Leuchter of his study. "[There are many] factors that go into engendering the placebo response. Which of those are critical, we do not yet know."