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UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute
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One of the most puzzling facts of medicine is the placebo effect: namely, that a substantial proportion of patients report feeling better after receiving a "sugar pill," or some other treatment with no known benefit for their illness. Between 30 - 60% of patients with illnesses ranging from arthritis to depression report a substantial improvement in their symptoms after receiving a placebo. It is not clear that placebo can "cure" any illness, but the power of the placebo effect in improving symptoms and reducing suffering is impressive.

Our research program is designed to help us understand how placebo effects occur and how to distinguish between people who are exhibiting a placebo response and those responding to the specific treatment (e.g. medication).

Our group is the first to report that when treatment with placebo reduces symptoms, it also changes the function of the brain. We examined research subjects with major depression, some of whom respond favorably to placebo treatment as part of research studies. When the subjects improved during placebo treatment, their brain function changed; the changes seen during placebo treatment were different from those seen during medication treatment. You can read the press release here and the full article was published online in January 2002 in the American Journal of Psychiatry. This work was replicated and extended in our December 2004 publication in Psychopharmacology.

More recently, we have reported that brain function changes during a brief placebo treatment period can identify those who will later develop side effects when taking a real antidepressant medication. The press release and article from the April 2005 issue of Neuropsychopharmacology are both online.


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