Saturday science subject: Placebo

— 6:57 PM on October 17, 2009

Why do people get better when taking sugar pills instead of the real thing? It's not just psychological, according to a new study by researchers at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Hamburg, Germany. As Reuters reports, the researchers were able to see the placebo effect in action by imaging patients' spines:

[Lead researcher Falk Eippert] and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to study changes in spinal cord activity.

They applied painful heat to the arms of 15 healthy men and compared the spinal cord responses when they thought they had been treated with either an anesthetic cream or a placebo.

Both creams, in fact, were inactive but the fMRI scans showed nerve activity was reduced significantly when subjects believed they were getting the anesthetic.

The researchers still aren't sure about the underlying mechanism that lessen nerve activity, however. Reuters says Eippert "suspects a range of chemicals including natural opioids, noradrenaline and serotonin may be involved.'

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