Placebos, brand name or generic?

Wait a second, they make brand-name placebos?
Nope, not really.

But apparently telling a patient that they’re taking the “higher-priced treatment” enhances the placebo effect. As Lenny Bernstein of the Washington Post reports, in one recent study they took two groups of patients with Parkinson’s disease, and told one group they’re receiving an inexpensive version of some “new drug” (which was lie, it was a placebo), while telling the other group that they’re receiving an expensive version of some “new drug” (also a lie, also the same placebo). Surprisingly, in a test of motor skills, which are impaired by Parkinson’s disease, patients who received the “expensive drug” outperformed those who were given the “cheap drug”.

While it sounds like we might be onto something here, we’re actually not. For starters, the size of this study was 12 people, and it’s very unlikely these 12 people are the perfect representation of everyone who has Parkinson’s. Also, as Lenny discusses in his article, lying to your patients is not a good way to practice medicine. Which brings up a good point, are placebos ethical in the first place?

But at the end of the day this whole story is a moot point. See, the whole idea behind a placebo is to prove that the drug you’re testing is able to work better than just giving a patient a sugar pill and telling them it’s a “new experimental treatment”. And if it isn’t, you got issues. And so the report Lenny refers to found that their new drug does work better than the placebos (although it was apparently a close call, whoops). So ultimately no doctor is going to be treating Parkinson’s disease with placebos anytime soon.

But hey, kudos to Lenny for making something out of nothing!


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