The placebo effect is a phenomenon that occurs when giving a fake treatment such as a distilled water or sugar to a patient improves his condition simply because that person believes that the treatment will help him.
Now, a new study shows another instance when the placebo response can be very effective. Researchers have found that when people take a drug that they believe is more expensive than it really is, they are more likely to believe that the drug will work even if it is just a placebo.
For the new study published in the journal Neurology on Jan. 28, Alberto Espay, from the University of Cincinnati's Department of Neurology and Rehabilitation Medicine, and colleagues involved 12 patients with Parkinson's disease to examine the placebo effects of medication cost.
The researchers told the participants that they would be given two variations of the same drug but the other one was more expensive compared with the other. The participants were told that the cheaper drug costs $100 while the more expensive one was $1,500.
The researchers also said that the purpose of the study was to determine if the two drugs are similar in efficacy regardless of the difference in price albeit all the participants were only given saline solutions.
The participants underwent several tests that would measure their motor skills as well as brain scans for measuring their brain activity before and after they were injected with the placebo.
The researchers found that although both placebos have improved the participants' motor functions, those who received the costlier drug first exhibited up to 28 percent improvements in their motor skill. In comparison, participants who received the cheaper drug only improved by 13 percent.
"Expensive placebo significantly improved motor function and decreased brain activation in a direction and magnitude comparable to, albeit less than, levodopa," the researchers wrote. "Perceptions of cost are capable of altering the placebo response in clinical studies."
The researchers said that the participants experienced a great placebo response because placebo has been known to boost the release of dopamine in the brain which affects movement.
Espay and colleagues admitted that they had to deceive the participants to achieve the results but they said that their findings may potentially help improve the life of patients suffering from Parkinson's disease.
"If we can find strategies to harness the placebo response to enhance the benefits of treatments, we could potentially maximize the benefit of treatment while reducing the dosage of drugs needed and possibly reducing side effects," Espay said.