Genes and the placebo effect

04 November 2012

Interview with

Nell Barrie

Nell:: The first story we're looking at is looking at the placebo effect which is this idea that patients can get a benefit even when they're not actually being treated with anything. And they're looking at the genes that could possibly contribute to this. So, this is published in PLoS ONE and the researchers have looked at a particular gene that has a role in regulating the dopamine levels in the brain. So this is to do with our kind of reward and pleasure responses to things.

Kat:: It's like the happy chemical, isn't it? It makes you feel good, all that kind of stuff.

Nell:: Exactly and the idea, their sort of hypothesis at the beginning was that perhaps people who can produce more dopamine in their brain, so they can have more of this sort of pleasure response to specific things, maybe they could be more susceptible to the placebo effect, and they wanted to test this. So they did that by getting some patients who have IBS, irritable bowel syndrome, and looking at different types of treatment. So, that ranged from them being on a waiting list and getting no treatment at all, or they could have a placebo acupuncture which is an interesting concept.

Kat:: I wonder how that works. They just stick them or something?

Nell: Yeah, it's a sham acupuncture device. So probably, you can feel it, but they're not actually going through the acupuncture procedures or they got the acupuncture placebo treatment so fake acupuncture, plus to getting talked to really nice, friendly, supportive doctor who listen to their concerns. And they compared all those different things and found that people with this genetic change that meant they could produce more dopamine, responded a lot better to the supportive doctor and the placebo acupuncture, so it's quite interesting.

Kat:: I think this is fascinating because it's interesting that they chose IBS which is a condition that it's quite chronic, it's difficult to know what causes it, it's difficult to know how you treat it. And it seems to me that many of the conditions that respond to alternative treatments, complementary treatments that are considered by many to be placebos are these kind of very chronic diseases. I wonder if it would work for other things, just people would be more susceptible to having a nice hot bath or going shopping?

Nell:: It is really interesting because the placebo effect is really powerful and it really can help make people feel a lot better even when we're looking at really serious diseases. So, if we can find a way to sort of harness that, figure out who could benefit most, how can we use the placebo effect to our own ends. That would really be exciting. It's a small study, but it's sort of pointing us in a direction of you know, what's happening in the brain, how could this affect how you respond to the placebo effect.

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