Show Details

Placebo Standards

November 11, 2010

A new report calls for standardizing placebos.


A different placebo effect…I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

In most drug trials, the drug is compared to a placebo, a fake pill that’s supposedly inert. But medical professor Beatrice Golomb, of the University of California at San Diego, worries that placebos may sometimes do more than we think.

BEATRICE GOLOMB (University of California, San Diego):
We don’t know how often placebo composition has affected the outcome of trials, because we don’t know what’s been in the placebo most of the time.

She and her colleagues found that the vast majority of studies don’t say what’s in their placebos. The few that do reveal potential conflicts. For example, an old cholesterol drug study used olive oil and corn oil as placebos – oils that were later found to improve cholesterol levels themselves. Standardizing placebos is a tricky idea, but Golomb says more disclosure would at least help researchers figure out which placebos work best – or rather, least – in different situations. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.