Tapping into the Power of the Placebo Effect
When Wayne Jonas was in medical school 40 years ago, doctors would write out a prescription for placebos, spelling it out backwards in capital letters, O-B-E-C-A-L-P. The pharmacist would fill the prescription with a sugar pill, recalls Jonas, now director of integrative health programs at the Samueli Foundation. It fulfilled the patient's desire for the doctor to do something when perhaps no drug could help, and the sugar pills did no harm.
Today, that deception is seen as unethical. But time and time again, studies have shown that placebos can have real benefits. Now, researchers are trying to untangle the mysteries of placebo effect in an effort to better treat patients.
The use of placebos took off in the post-WWII period, when randomized controlled clinical trials became the gold standard for medical research. One group in a study would be treated with a placebo, a supposedly inert pill or procedure that would not affect normal healing and recovery, while another group in the study would receive an "active" component, most commonly a pill under investigation. Presumably, the group receiving the active treatment would have a better response and the difference from the placebo group would represent the efficacy of the drug being tested. That was the basis for drug approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"Placebo responses were marginalized," says Ted Kaptchuk, director of the Program in Placebo Studies & Therapeutic Encounters at Harvard Medical School. "Doctors were taught they have to overcome it when they were thinking about using an effective drug."
But that began to change around the turn of the 21st century. The National Institutes of Health held a series of meetings to set a research agenda and fund studies to answer some basic questions, led by Jonas who was in charge of the office of alternative medicine at the time. "People spontaneously get better all the time," says Kaptchuk. The crucial question was, is the placebo effect real? Is it more than just spontaneous healing?
A turning point came in 2001 in a paper in Science that showed physical evidence of the placebo effect. It used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to measure release patterns of dopamine — a chemical messenger involved in how we feel pleasure — in the brains of patients with Parkinson's disease. Surprisingly, the placebo activated the same patterns that were activated by Parkinson's drugs, such as levodopa. It proved the placebo effect was real; now the search was on to better understand and control it.
A key part of the effect can be the beliefs, expectations, context, and "rituals" of the encounter between doctor and patient. Belief by the doctor and patient that the treatment would work, and the formalized practices of administering the treatment can all contribute to a positive outcome.
Conditioning can be another important component in generating a response, as Pavlov demonstrated more than a century ago in his experiments with dogs. They were trained with a bell prior to feeding such that they would begin to salivate in anticipation at the sound of a bell even with no food present.
Translating that to humans, studies with pain medications and sleeping aids showed that patients who had a positive response with a certain dose of those medications could have the same response if the doses was reduced and a dummy pill substituted, even to the point where there was no longer any active ingredient.
Researchers think placebo treatments can work particularly well in helping people deal with pain and psychological disorders.
Those types of studies troubled Kaptchuk because they often relied on deception; patients weren't told they were receiving a placebo, or at best there was a possibility that they might be randomized to receive a placebo. He believed the placebo effect could work even if patients were told upfront that they were going to receive a placebo. More than a dozen so call "open-label placebo" studies across numerous medical conditions, by Kaptchuk and others, have shown that you don't have to lie to patients for a placebo to work.
Jonas likes to tell the story of a patient who used methotrexate, a potent immunosuppressant, to control her rheumatoid arthritis. She was planning a long trip and didn't want to be bothered with the injections and monitoring required in using the drug, So she began to drink a powerful herbal extract of anise, a licorice flavor that she hated, prior to each injection. She reduced the amount of methotrexate over a period of months and finally stopped, but continued to drink the anise. That process had conditioned her body "to alter her immune function and her autoimmunity" as if she were taking the drug, much like Pavlov's dogs had been trained. She has not taken methotrexate for more than a year.
An intriguing paper published in May 2021 found that mild, non-invasive electric stimulation to the brain could not only boost the placebo effect on pain but also reduce the "nocebo" effect — when patients report a negative effect to a sham treatment. While the work is very preliminary, it may open the door to directly manipulating these responses.
Researchers think placebo treatments can work particularly well in helping people deal with pain and psychological disorders, areas where drugs often are of little help. Still, placebos aren't a cure and only a portion of patients experience a placebo effect.
If medicine were a soap opera, the nocebo would be the evil twin of the placebo. It's what happens when patients have adverse side effects because of the expectation that they will. It's commonly seem when patients claims to experience pain or gastric distress that can occur with a drug even when they've received a placebo. The side effects were either imagined or caused by something else.
"Up to 97% of reported pharmaceutical side effects are not caused by the drug itself but rather by nocebo effects and symptom misattribution," according to one 2019 paper.
One way to reduce a nocebo response is to simply not tell patients that specific side effects might occur. An example is a liver biopsy, in which a large-gauge needle is used to extract a tissue sample for examination. Those told ahead of time that they might experience some pain were more likely to report pain and greater pain than those who weren't offered this information.
Interestingly, a nocebo response plays out in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is never activated in a placebo response. "I think what we are dealing with with nocebo is anxiety," says Kaptchuk, but he acknowledges that others disagree.
Distraction may be another way to minimize the nocebo effect. Pediatricians are using virtual reality (VR) to engage children and distract them during routine procedures such as blood draws and changing wound dressings, and burn patients of all ages have found relief with specially created VRs.
Jonas argues that what we commonly call the placebo effect is misnamed and leading us astray. "The fact is people heal and that inherent healing capacity is both powerful and influenced by mental, social, and contextual factors that are embedded in every medical encounter since the idea of treatment began," he wrote in a 2019 article in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry. "Our understanding of healing and ability to enhance it will be accelerated if we stop using the term 'placebo response' and call it what it is—the meaning response, and its special application in medicine called the healing response."
He cites evidence that "only 15% to 20% of the healing of an individual or a population comes from health care. The rest—nearly 80%—comes from other factors rarely addressed in the health care system: behavioral and lifestyle choices that people make in their daily life."
To better align treatments and maximize their effectiveness, Jonas has created HOPE (Healing Oriented Practices & Environments) Note, "a patient-guided process designed to identify the patient's values and goals in their life and for healing." Essentially, it seeks to make clear to both doctor and patient what the patient's goals are in seeking treatment. In an extreme example of terminal cancer, some patients may choose to extend life despite the often brutal treatments, while others might prefer to optimize quality of life in the remaining time that they have.It builds on practices already taught in medical schools. Jonas believes doctors and patients can use tools like these to maximize the treatment response and achieve better outcomes.
Much of the medical profession has been resistant to these approaches. Part of that is simply tradition and limited data on their effectiveness, but another very real factor is the billing process for how they are reimbursed. Jonas says a new medical billing code added this year gives doctors another way to be compensated for the extra time and effort that a more holistic approach to medicine may initially require. Other moves away from fee-for-service payments to bundling and payment for outcomes, and the integrated care provided by the Veterans Affairs, Kaiser Permanente and other groups offer longer term hope for the future of approaches that might enhance the healing response.
This article was first published by Leaps.org on July 7, 2021.
A single shot — a gene therapy injected into the brain — dramatically reduced alcohol consumption in monkeys that previously drank heavily. If the therapy is safe and effective in people, it might one day be a permanent treatment for alcoholism for people with no other options.
The challenge: Alcohol use disorder (AUD) means a person has trouble controlling their alcohol consumption, even when it is negatively affecting their life, job, or health.
In the U.S., more than 10 percent of people over the age of 12 are estimated to have AUD, and while medications, counseling, or sheer willpower can help some stop drinking, staying sober can be a huge struggle — an estimated 40-60 percent of people relapse at least once.
A team of U.S. researchers suspected that an in-development gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease might work as a dopamine-replenishing treatment for alcoholism, too.
The idea: For occasional drinkers, alcohol causes the brain to release more dopamine, a chemical that makes you feel good. Chronic alcohol use, however, causes the brain to produce, and process, less dopamine, and this persistent dopamine deficit has been linked to alcohol relapse.
There is currently no way to reverse the changes in the brain brought about by AUD, but a team of U.S. researchers suspected that an in-development gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease might work as a dopamine-replenishing treatment for alcoholism, too.
To find out, they tested it in heavy-drinking monkeys — and the animals’ alcohol consumption dropped by 90% over the course of a year.
How it works: The treatment centers on the protein GDNF (“glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor”), which supports the survival of certain neurons, including ones linked to dopamine.
For the new study, a harmless virus was used to deliver the gene that codes for GDNF into the brains of four monkeys that, when they had the option, drank heavily — the amount of ethanol-infused water they consumed would be equivalent to a person having nine drinks per day.
“We targeted the cell bodies that produce dopamine with this gene to increase dopamine synthesis, thereby replenishing or restoring what chronic drinking has taken away,” said co-lead researcher Kathleen Grant.
To serve as controls, another four heavy-drinking monkeys underwent the same procedure, but with a saline solution delivered instead of the gene therapy.
The results: All of the monkeys had their access to alcohol removed for two months following the surgery. When it was then reintroduced for four weeks, the heavy drinkers consumed 50 percent less compared to the control group.
When the researchers examined the monkeys’ brains at the end of the study, they were able to confirm that dopamine levels had been replenished in the treated animals, but remained low in the controls.
The researchers then took the alcohol away for another four weeks, before giving it back for four. They repeated this cycle for a year, and by the end of it, the treated monkeys’ consumption had fallen by more than 90 percent compared to the controls.
“Drinking went down to almost zero,” said Grant. “For months on end, these animals would choose to drink water and just avoid drinking alcohol altogether. They decreased their drinking to the point that it was so low we didn’t record a blood-alcohol level.”
When the researchers examined the monkeys’ brains at the end of the study, they were able to confirm that dopamine levels had been replenished in the treated animals, but remained low in the controls.
Looking ahead: Dopamine is involved in a lot more than addiction, so more research is needed to not only see if the results translate to people but whether the gene therapy leads to any unwanted changes to mood or behavior.
Because the therapy requires invasive brain surgery and is likely irreversible, it’s unlikely to ever become a common treatment for alcoholism — but it could one day be the only thing standing between people with severe AUD and death.
“[The treatment] would be most appropriate for people who have already shown that all our normal therapeutic approaches do not work for them,” said Grant. “They are likely to create severe harm or kill themselves or others due to their drinking.”
On the savannah near the Botswana-Zimbabwe border, elephants grazed contentedly. Nearby, postdoctoral researcher Alida de Flamingh watched and waited. As the herd moved away, she went into action, collecting samples of elephant dung that she and other wildlife conservationists would study in the months to come. She pulled on gloves, took a swab, and ran it all over the still-warm, round blob of elephant poop.
Sequencing DNA from fecal matter is a safe, non-invasive way to track and ultimately help protect over 42,000 species currently threatened by extinction. Scientists are using this DNA to gain insights into wildlife health, genetic diversity and even the broader environment. Applied to elephants, chimpanzees, toucans and other species, it helps scientists determine the genetic diversity of groups and linkages with other groups. Such analysis can show changes in rates of inbreeding. Populations with greater genetic diversity adapt better to changes and environmental stressors than those with less diversity, thus reducing their risks of extinction, explains de Flamingh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Analyzing fecal DNA also reveals information about an animal’s diet and health, and even nearby flora that is eaten. That information gives scientists broader insights into the ecosystem, and the findings are informing conservation initiatives. Examples include restoring or maintaining genetic connections among groups, ensuring access to certain foraging areas or increasing diversity in captive breeding programs.
Approximately 27 percent of mammals and 28 percent of all assessed species are close to dying out. The IUCN Red List of threatened species, simply called the Red List, is the world’s most comprehensive record of animals’ risk of extinction status. The more information scientists gather, the better their chances of reducing those risks. In Africa, populations of vertebrates declined 69 percent between 1970 and 2022, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
“We put on sterile gloves and use a sterile swab to collect wet mucus and materials from the outside of the dung ball,” says Alida de Flamingh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
“When people talk about species, they often talk about ecosystems, but they often overlook genetic diversity,” says Christina Hvilsom, senior geneticist at the Copenhagen Zoo. “It’s easy to count (individuals) to assess whether the population size is increasing or decreasing, but diversity isn’t something we can see with our bare eyes. Yet, it’s actually the foundation for the species and populations.” DNA analysis can provide this critical information.
Assessing elephants’ health
“Africa’s elephant populations are facing unprecedented threats,” says de Flamingh, the postdoc, who has studied them since 2009. Challenges include ivory poaching, habitat destruction and smaller, more fragmented habitats that result in smaller mating pools with less genetic diversity. Additionally, de Flamingh studies the microbial communities living on and in elephants – their microbiomes – looking for parasites or dangerous microbes.
Approximately 415,000 elephants inhabit Africa today, but de Flamingh says the number would be four times higher without these challenges. The IUCN Red List reports African savannah elephants are endangered and African forest elephants are critically endangered. Elephants support ecosystem biodiversity by clearing paths that help other species travel. Their very footprints create small puddles that can host smaller organisms such as tadpoles. Elephants are often described as ecosystems’ engineers, so if they disappear, the rest of the ecosystem will suffer too.
There’s a process to collecting elephant feces. “We put on sterile gloves (which we change for each sample) and use a sterile swab to collect wet mucus and materials from the outside of the dung ball,” says de Flamingh. They rub a sample about the size of a U.S. quarter onto a paper card embedded with DNA preservation technology. Each card is air dried and stored in a packet of desiccant to prevent mold growth. This way, samples can be stored at room temperature indefinitely without the DNA degrading.
Earlier methods required collecting dung in bags, which needed either refrigeration or the addition of preservatives, or the riskier alternative of tranquilizing the animals before approaching them to draw blood samples. The ability to collect and sequence the DNA made things much easier and safer.
“Our research provides a way to assess elephant health without having to physically interact with elephants,” de Flamingh emphasizes. “We also keep track of the GPS coordinates of each sample so that we can create a map of the sampling locations,” she adds. That helps researchers correlate elephants’ health with geographic areas and their conditions.
Although de Flamingh works with elephants in the wild, the contributions of zoos in the United States and collaborations in South Africa (notably the late Professor Rudi van Aarde and the Conservation Ecology Research Unit at the University of Pretoria) were key in studying this method to ensure it worked, she points out.
Genetic work with chimpanzees began about a decade ago. Hvilsom and her group at the Copenhagen Zoo analyzed DNA from nearly 1,000 fecal samples collected between 2003 and 2018 by a team of international researchers. The goal was to assess the status of the West African subspecies, which is critically endangered after rapid population declines. Of the four subspecies of chimpanzees, the West African subspecies is considered the most at-risk.
In total, the WWF estimates the numbers of chimpanzees inhabiting Africa’s forests and savannah woodlands at between 173,000 and 300,000. Poaching, disease and human-caused changes to their lands are their major risks.
By analyzing genetics obtained from fecal samples, Hvilsom estimated the chimpanzees’ population, ascertained their family relationships and mapped their migration routes.
“One of the threats is mining near the Nimba Mountains in Guinea,” a stronghold for the West African subspecies, Hvilsom says. The Nimba Mountains are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but they are rich in iron ore, which is used to make the steel that is vital to the Asian construction boom. As she and colleagues wrote in a recent paper, “Many extractive industries are currently developing projects in chimpanzee habitat.”
Analyzing DNA allows researchers to identify individual chimpanzees more accurately than simply observing them, she says. Normally, field researchers would install cameras and manually inspect each picture to determine how many chimpanzees were in an area. But, Hvilsom says, “That’s very tricky. Chimpanzees move a lot and are fast, so it’s difficult to get clear pictures. Often, they find and destroy the cameras. Also, they live in large areas, so you need a lot of cameras.”
By analyzing genetics obtained from fecal samples, Hvilsom estimated the chimpanzees’ population, ascertained their family relationships and mapped their migration routes based upon DNA comparisons with other chimpanzee groups. The mining companies and builders are using this information to locate future roads where they won’t disrupt migration – a more effective solution than trying to build artificial corridors for wildlife.
“The current route cuts off communities of chimpanzees,” Hvilsom elaborates. That effectively prevents young adult chimps from joining other groups when the time comes, eventually reducing the currently-high levels of genetic diversity.
“The mining company helped pay for the genetics work,” Hvilsom says, “as part of its obligation to assess and monitor biodiversity and the effect of the mining in the area.”
Of 50 toucan subspecies, 11 are threatened or near-threatened with extinction because of deforestation and poaching.
Identifying toucan families
Feces aren't the only substance researchers draw DNA samples from. Jeffrey Coleman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin relies on blood tests for studying the genetic diversity of toucans---birds species native to Central America and nearby regions. They live in the jungles, where they hop among branches, snip fruit from trees, toss it in the air and catch it with their large beaks. “Toucans are beautiful, charismatic birds that are really important to the ecosystem,” says Coleman.
Of their 50 subspecies, 11 are threatened or near-threatened with extinction because of deforestation and poaching. “When people see these aesthetically pleasing birds, they’re motivated to care about conservation practices,” he points out.
Coleman works with the Dallas World Aquarium and its partner zoos to analyze DNA from blood draws, using it to identify which toucans are related and how closely. His goal is to use science to improve the genetic diversity among toucan offspring.
Specifically, he’s looking at sections of the genome of captive birds in which the nucleotides repeat multiple times, such as AGATAGATAGAT. Called microsatellites, these consecutively-repeating sections can be passed from parents to children, helping scientists identify parent-child and sibling-sibling relationships. “That allows you to make strategic decisions about how to pair (captive) individuals for mating...to avoid inbreeding,” Coleman says.
Jeffrey Coleman is studying the microsatellites inside the toucan genomes.
Courtesy Jeffrey Coleman
The alternative is to use a type of analysis that looks for a single DNA building block – a nucleotide – that differs in a given sequence. Called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced “snips”), they are very common and very accurate. Coleman says they are better than microsatellites for some uses. But scientists have already developed a large body of microsatellite data from multiple species, so microsatellites can shed more insights on relations.
Regardless of whether conservation programs use SNPs or microsatellites to guide captive breeding efforts, the goal is to help them build genetically diverse populations that eventually may supplement endangered populations in the wild. “The hope is that the ecosystem will be stable enough and that the populations (once reintroduced into the wild) will be able to survive and thrive,” says Coleman. History knows some good examples of captive breeding success.
The California condor, which had a total population of 27 in 1987, when the last wild birds were captured, is one of them. A captive breeding program boosted their numbers to 561 by the end of 2022. Of those, 347 of those are in the wild, according to the National Park Service.
Conservationists hope that their work on animals’ genetic diversity will help preserve and restore endangered species in captivity and the wild. DNA analysis is crucial to both types of efforts. The ability to apply genome sequencing to wildlife conservation brings a new level of accuracy that helps protect species and gives fresh insights that observation alone can’t provide.
“A lot of species are threatened,” Coleman says. “I hope this research will be a resource people can use to get more information on longer-term genealogies and different populations.”