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Placebo Effect Genes

August 24, 2009

The placebo effect only works for certain people – could this be genetic?


Placebos and your genes. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Some patients feel much better after receiving sugar pills, or placebos. But others don’t benefit at all. UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Leuchter studies the placebo effect in patients with major depressive disorder. He says how well the placebo effect works for them depends on the activity of two brain chemicals, called dopamine and norepinephrine. Those responding best to placebos have unique gene variants that control the regulation of these chemicals.

The levels of the chemicals in the brain are under pretty tight genetic control. This shows us that it’s not just beliefs and attitudes and expectations. It’s also how your DNA is made up, that helps to explain whether you’re going to benefit or not.

He stresses that patients already benefitting from medication for major depressive disorder should continue to take that medication. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.