placebo2

Treating Parkinson's by Tricking Neurons

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BREAKING: Neuroscientists have finally created a pill that can relieve chronic pain in ten minutes!
Chances are, if you are presently suffering from chronic pain and got your hands on the said pill, you’ll be feeling partial or complete relief from pain within ten minutes. It will not matter if the said pill was a placebo—caster sugar disguised as the miracle pill—as long as you THOUGHT it to be the said miracle pill that will relieve your pain. And this is not all in our head—as the phrase goes. Our neurons can also be suckered into falling for the sugar pill trick with a little conditioning.

In a very interesting paper published last week, Fabrizio Benedetti and team tricked neurons in the brains of Parkinson’s patients to respond to placebo like they would respond to actual medication. All symptoms of Parkinson’s disease can be tracked back to their neurons being severely deprived of dopamine. The team showed that while the placebo went entirely ignored by the neurons if given without any priming, if the neurons were given dopamine treats for a couple of days in a row beforehand they responded to plain salt water exactly as if it were dopamine. More so, the patients also experienced symptomatic relief with the placebo, losing the muscle rigidity that is associated with Parkinson’s, the effects lasting for upto 24 hours after placebo treatment.
This study does more than illustrate the naivety of our neurons. It exemplifies the critical role of conditioning and memory in how placebos work. Much like you can condition a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell by previously associating the sound with food, placebos tap into our positive conditioning of ‘medicines make us better’ and trick our neurons and consequently us into experiencing the effects of the real drug. If we can harness the memory for drug action in neurons, we can rework drug protocols to achieve same clinical benefit with reduced medications.
Drug – sugar pill – drug – sugar pill may work as well.