Although generic drugs are often identical to their brand-name expensive counterparts, the effect might not the same. It’s not because the more expensive drugs do something different or better – in fact, it’s all in your head. A new study has found that expensive placebos can work better than cheap placebos.

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The placebo effect holds a very special role in modern medicine; it works, it can be very effective, but we basically don’t know why. A placebo is an ineffective or just a sham treatment or procedure which actually has a medical improvement on the patient.

“Even a condition with objectively measured signs and symptoms can improve because of the placebo effect,” argues Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital neurologist, Dr. Peter LeWitt.

Now, a new study had found that the price of the drug makes a significant difference in its efficiency – regardless of what the drug actually has inside.

In a rather unusual clinical trial, researchers from University of Cincinnati used two dummy pills and gave it to two groups of people with “moderately advanced” Parkinsons disease. The patients were told they will be given two separate drugs of the same effectiveness – with the only difference being that one is 15 times more expensive than the other. In truth, both of them were actually saline. Researchers describe their study:

“Eight of the participants said they did have greater expectations of the ‘expensive’ drug and were amazed at the extent of the difference brought about by their expectations. Interestingly, the other four participants said they had no expectation of greater benefits of the more expensive drug, and they also showed little overall changes.”

The first thing that researchers report is that both treatments improved the motor skills and reduced hand shaking to some extent. However, the “more expensive” drug was more efficient, showing a better improvement, by 9%. In total, 58% of patients had improvement with the allegedly cheap drug while 67% improved with the other one.

According to researchers, it’s the patients’ expectations which are the main cause here.

“Patients’ expectations play an important role in the effectiveness of their treatments, and the placebo effect has been well documented, especially in people with Parkinson’s disease,” explains study author Alberto J. Espay, of the University of Cincinnatti, in Ohio. The American Academy of Neurology Fellow continues, “We wanted to see if the people’s perceptions of the cost of the drug they received would affect the placebo response.”

It seems quite likely that the same thing could happen for other, more common drugs as well. Many relatively cheap drugs have a more expensive counterpart (or even more), generally created by the big pharma companies. This study also shows that we could potentially use the patients’ expectations to generate better results with placebo treatments.

“If we can find strategies to harness the placebo response to enhance the benefits of treatments, we could potentially maximize the benefit of treatment while reducing the dosage of drugs needed and possibly reducing side effects.”

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