News from CRIS: 101 Series - Placebo Effect

March 16, 2021

What is a placebo?

In research, a placebo is an inert substance designed without therapeutic value. A placebo is given to an individual typically during a clinical study as part of a control group.
In a clinical study, the placebo prevents the recipient and other study participants from knowing (with their consent) who receives active vs inactive treatment protocols as the study results could be skewed if people know which treatment they received.

What is the placebo effect?

In a clinical setting, 

  • if someone receives no treatment, there will be no response;

  • if someone receives a treatment such as a new medication, they will have a pharmacological response;
  • if someone receives a placebo (without knowing whether he/she receives a new medication or placebo) and has a response similar to what would be expected from the new medication, it's called the placebo response.  

The difference between no treatment and a placebo response is the placebo effect. To put it simply, the placebo effect is the response someone experiences from "treatment" with an inert substance, which is likely due to expectation, desire, and emotion. 
For example, if someone was given an inert pill and was told the pill would reduce their pain, they may report less pain after taking the inert pill. 
Outside of a clinical setting, the placebo effect may explain why some people feel their health is positively impacted after taking supplements, using products, or undergoing procedures that have not been scientifically demonstrated to be effective. 


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