Study: Placebo Alters Brain Function

ByABC News
December 31, 2001, 10:41 AM

B O S T O N, Jan. 2 -- A new study finds that the placebo effect actually alters brain activity.

The study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry is the first of its kind to suggest that patients with major depression who receive placebos experience changes in brain function similar to changes caused by medication.

The double blind study conducted by UCLA researchers used quantitative electroencephalography or QEEG imaging to look at brain activity in 51 patients who were assigned to receive either placebos or one of two antidepressant medications.

After nine weeks, patients were classified as being medication responders, placebo responders, or non-responders to either medication or placebos.

"The placebo responders and the medication responders had changes in the same brain region," says Dr. Andrew Leuchter, lead author of the study and director of adult psychiatry at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital.

Placebo responders showed more activity in the prefrontal cortex while medication responders showed less activity. Additionally, the decrease in depression with the placebo was the same as the the improvement with medication.

Placebo Perceptions

A placebo is a non-medication, or inactive treatment that is used to satisfy a patient's psychological need for medicine. In other words, just the act of taking a pill may be enough to make some people feel better: the so-called placebo effect.

Some experts even believe that the placebo effect accounts for as much as 100 percent of the efficacy of medication, according to Dr. J. Alexander Bodkin, director of the clinical psychopharmacology research program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.

"What we didn't expect is that people who get better on placebo would actually show changes in brain activity, as well," added Leuchter. "Placebo is commonly thought of as an inert treatment. It's supposed to be nothing."

But, the new research suggests that placebos are not "nothing " in the context of a clinical research study, where placebos are commonly compared to medications to test the effect of these drugs over and above the patient's belief that they will work.