Power Of Perception: ‘Expensive’ Placebos Work Better Than ‘Cheap’ Ones, Expectations Play Key Role

A recent study suggests that expectations play a key role in patient response to prescription drugs. The higher the expectations of the drug administered, the better the patient results. The research results showed that placebos that were perceived as more “expensive” gave better results than “cheap” ones.

The Los Angeles Times reports that researchers were able to turn a simple saline solution into an effective Parkinson’s treatment simply by telling the patient that the drug cost a lot of money. Researchers from the University of Cincinnati decided to attempt a slightly unusual study. Instead of testing a placebo drug against an actual drug, the researchers decided to pit two placebos against one another.

Patients were given two placebo treatments that were exactly the same in composition, a simple saline solution. However, patients were told that one pill cost $100 and the other $1,500. Researchers were looking to see if perceived quality had any effect on how the body reacted to the drug. Surprisingly, it did.

The results, which were published in the journal Neurology, show a 9 percent overall improvement after taking the “expensive” placebo versus the “cheap” placebo. Therefore, the researchers were able to determine that perceived quality, based on cost, is able to alter placebo response.

“Perceptions of cost are capable of altering the placebo response in clinical studies.”

The researchers took the placebo test a step further by performing an MRI on each patient following the administration of the placebos. The study found that after taking the “cheap” placebo, patients’ brains were more active. The brain was less active after taking the “expensive” placebo. The researchers believe this brain activity is in direct correlation with the patient’s perceived expectations of the pill. The patient is expecting the “expensive” placebo to work better, therefore, the body allows the pill to do its work. However, the patient does not have as high of expectations for the “cheap” pill, so it is responding by doing more work itself.

The research has interesting implications in the field of Neurology. Doctors may be able to use placebos to improve patients’ symptoms and avoid more expensive and potentially toxic “real” drugs. The neurologists went so far as to say this particular study could pave the way to a new treatment options if higher perceived value is placed on the placebo drug being administered.

“Placebo can be the physician’s friend. The outcome of this study … opens our eyes to another nuance of placebo effect.”

This isn’t the first time that researchers have successfully used placebos to treat Parkinson’s patients. In fact, one study found that a placebo stimulated learning-related brain activity just as well as the actual Parkinson’s medication.