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Demystifying The Power Of ‘The Placebo Effect’

(Courtesy: Gatis Gribusts/Flickr)

(Courtesy: Gatis Gribusts/Flickr)

Right here in Boston, in the heart of the city’s respected and centuries-old medical establishment, there’s a research center that is challenging long held views about how we treat illness, how we measure the effectiveness of treatment, and how the power of the mind — rather than drugs — can actually cure illness.

We’re talking about new and controversial research into the so-called placebo effect. There’s growing evidence that placebos can actually help cure people, or at least make them feel better. If true, this could spark a major revolution in medicine, because traditionally placebos have had a bad name. After all, they’re usually a fake pill, nothing more than a bit of sugar, for example, designed to deceive people in clinical drug trials.

But now there’s evidence that in some cases placebos — even when people knowingly take them — work just as well as real drugs and actually make people better. This has potentially enormous implications in the way we think about medicine, and how we understand the power of suggestion and belief in healing.

The latest research on this comes from Harvard University and its newly created Program in Placebo Studies and The Therapeutic Encounter based at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. You could call this whole idea, The Power Of Nothing, which is the title of Michael Specter’s article in this week’s New Yorker about new research into the placebo effect.

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Hosts Meghna Chakrabarti and Anthony Brooks introduce us to newsmakers, big thinkers and artists and bring us stories of relevance to Bostonians here and around the region. Live every weekday at 3.

WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer is co-hosting Radio Boston while Meghna Chakrabarti is on maternity leave.

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