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Placebo Effect

August 15, 2007

Scientists look to the brain to find out why some people respond better to the placebo effect than others.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):
How fake pills can treat real illnesses. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Some patients get powerful pain relief from a sugar pill if they’re told it’s real medicine. That’s called the placebo effect, and scientists have long puzzled over what causes it, and why it helps some people more than others. Now University of Michigan neuroscientist Jon-Kar Zubieta and his colleagues have found that people who get the most pain relief from placebos also show increased activity in a tiny region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.

JON-KAR ZUBIETA (University of Michigan):
So, basically, what this was telling us is that placebo activates dopamine and the magnitude of activation in this particular brain region predicted how well the placebo was going to work in these individuals.

HIRSHON:
Zubieta doesn’t know why some people have more dopamine activity in the nucleus accumbens, and therefore respond better to placebos, but he thinks genetics may play a role. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.