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Study: Taking Pills May Not Be Needed To Heal Aches, Pains

Posted September 30, 2005

— When a new pain reliever is developed, researchers use two groups of people to test it. One group gets the new drug while the other gets a fake pill known as a placebo. It has no healing power, but there are always a handful of patients who feel better, hence the "placebo effect."

"Most of the time, these effects are disregarded as purely psychological," said Dr. Jon-Kar Zubieta, of the University of Michigan.

Recently, researchers from the University of Michigan have figured out the placebo effect is much more than psychological.

Zubieta took detailed brain images of people in pain. While in the scanner, patients were told they were going to get a pain reliever, but they received a placebo. Zubieta noticed an interesting phenomenon. Just the suggestion that pain relief was coming caused the brain to release large amounts of its own endorphins -- a natural pain killer.

"The molecules are there to suppress pain signals under normal circumstances," he said.

The endorphins block pain signals like morphine and anesthetics do. Scientists hope the new finding could lead to treatments that trigger the brain's own chemicals.

"Enhancing these mechanisms may improve treatment in perhaps a more natural way than what you would achieve with classical painkillers," Zubieta said.

Researchers are still looking at why some people experience the placebo effect while others do not.


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