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 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.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 40th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms had begun with leg cramps and foot drop in late fall 2017. At the end of life, he could only move a few fingers on his left hand and could not speak or eat by mouth; a feeding tube became necessary, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she adds, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” said Bedlack, who is also chief of neurology at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He adds that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he notes, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby