Seeking to Illuminate the Mysterious Placebo Effect

Erik Vance for the NYT:

Dr. Wager (pronounced WAY-gur) is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado. His specialty is neuroscience and brain imaging, but his passion is the placebo effect — a phenomenon that has undergone a resurgence in recent years and is now being studied by researchers in many corners of science.

Much of this attention is a result of the kind of brain imaging Dr. Wager does, and he is a leading figure in the new generation of placebo researchers.

Which may make his background seem unlikely. Dr. Wager, 35, was raised in Christian Science, a religion mostly known for its aversion to medical treatment. His family was not strict about it, however; he recalls an incident from his Colorado childhood that could have served as a harbinger for his career.

As a baby, he says, he came down with a rash, and after much prayer his mother took him to a doctor, fearing scarlet fever. “The doctor said, ‘Here’s a cream, rub it on there,’ and it went away,” Dr. Wager said.

So did his mother’s distress. Her pulse probably slowed, he says now, and her breathing relaxed — just the effect a placebo may have on a terrified patient.

Increasingly, placebo effects are being viewed as real and tangible, if mysterious. In various surveys, 45 percent to 85 percent of American and European practitioners say they have used placebos in clinical practice, and 96 percent of academic physicians in the United States say they think placebos have therapeutic effects.

Even so, many scientists mistrust them.

“When I started grad school I felt like it was kind of taboo to study the placebo,” Dr. Wager said. The research at the time was spotty at best, “and then there were whole sections of society that were ready to jump on that and say, ‘Oh, look how powerful the mind is!’ ”

But placebo research has gained respectability in recent years, thanks largely to the work of Dr. Fabrizio Benedetti, an Italian neuroscientist widely seen as the patriarch of the field. Dr. Benedetti argues that there is not a single placebo effect, but many.

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