The Power of Placebo

What is it about the very act of taking a pill -- even if it contains no medicine -- that makes some people feel better? It's commonly called the placebo effect and researchers studying depression have gathered some new insight into this response to treatment.

Life wasn't always a walk in the park for Janis Schonfeld. "I would tear and cry for no reason, just driving my daughter to school," she says.

Schonfeld was clinically depressed so she enrolled in a study at UCLA where she received pills for her depression. She says, "With each passing week, I just felt that I was really getting better."

But her pills actually contained no medicine, just sugar. Schonfeld was part of a study designed to examine the placebo effect.

"We knew that some patients had a transient relief of symptoms. What we didn't know was that we could actually alter the way the brain worked," says neuropsychiatrist Andrew Leuchter, M.D., of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute.

In the eight-week study, some patients received anti-depressants, while others got a placebo. Researchers periodically monitored patients' brainwaves. Fifty-two percent of those taking the medication showed improvement, but 38 percent of those taking the placebo said they felt better, too.

What stunned researchers is that the brains of people in the placebo group actually showed the change.

Dr. Leuchter says, "We can't say whether people feel better because their brain function changed, or whether their brain function changed because they felt better."

After the study, doctors told the placebo patients they hadn't been on medication.

Schonfeld says, "I said to him, 'I really think that you should check your records. I really think that I was on medication.' And he laughed."

Today, her depression is gone, and researchers have more evidence to back up the power of suggestion.