In new research, scientists from Northwestern Medicine can reliably predict which chronic pain patients will respond to a sugar placebo pill based on the patients’ brain anatomy and psychological characteristics.
And the pills will reduce their pain as effectively as any powerful drug on the market.
This means someday doctors may prescribe sugar pills for certain chronic pain patients based on their brain anatomy and psychology.
In the study, about 60 chronic back pain patients were randomized into two groups of the study.
In one group, the people didn’t know if they got the drug or the placebo. Researchers didn’t study the people who got the real drug.
The other study group included people who came to the clinic but didn’t get a placebo or drug. They were the control group.
The researchers found the people whose pain decreased as a result of the sugar pill had a similar brain anatomy and psychological traits.
For example, the right side of their emotional brain was larger than the left, and they had a larger cortical sensory area than people who were not responsive to the placebo.
In addition, the chronic pain placebo responders also were emotionally self-aware, sensitive to painful situations and mindful of their environment.
The researchers suggest their findings have three benefits to patients.
First, it helps doctors prescribe non-active drugs rather than active drugs.
It’s much better to give patients a non-active drug rather than an active drug and get the same result.
Most pharmacological treatments have long-term adverse effects or addictive properties. Placebo becomes as good an option for treatment as any drug we have on the market.
Second, it help eliminate the placebo effect from drug trials.
Drug trials would need to recruit fewer people, and identifying the physiological effects would be much easier.
Third, it could help reduced health care costs. A sugar pill prescription for chronic pain patients would result in vast cost savings for patients and the health care system.
The senior study author A. Vania Apkarian is a professor of physiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
The study is published in Nature Communications.
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Source: Nature Communications.