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Is There a Placebo Effect?

Is there a placebo effect? That's the question we discuss on today's Moment of Science.

In many medical studies, patients in one group receive an experimental new treatment, while patients in a comparison group get a dummy pill, or some other placebo. The patients don't know who got which pill. The idea is to see if the medicine being tested is more effective than the patients' desire to get better. Anyway, it turns out that some of the patients taking placebos get better, presumably just because they believe they're getting treatment. This is what's known as the placebo effect.

Despite the data found in this research, another group of Danish scientists examined various studies and determined that there wasn't really any difference between those patients taking placebos and those who weren't getting any special treatment at all. But, these findings are controversial. For one thing, most of these studies involved a group of patients too small to be statistically significant.

However, one could make the argument that even without the placebo effect, it makes sense that some patients get better when they join a study. Some would have gotten better anyway, and some just start taking better care of themselves as part of the study.

Until there are more studies that look beyond whether a placebo works and instead focus on how it might work, the placebo effect will remain a mystery.

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