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Longevity Briefs: Placebos Can Reduce Emotional Distress – Even When The Recipient Knows

Posted on 3 November 2020

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Longevity briefs provides a short summary of a novel research, medicine, or technology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

Why is this research important: A placebo is a ‘fake’ treatment that contains no active ingredients. In placebo-controlled trials, it is given to some participants without them knowing and is made to seem like the real treatment. This is because the mere act of taking medication, even if that medication is ‘fake’, can have a very real and sometimes very powerful effect on an individual’s health. Surprisingly, this effect can occur even when the recipient is aware that their medication is not the real thing.

What did the researchers do: In two experiments involving 280 participants, researchers randomly assigned individuals to two groups. One group knowingly received a placebo treatment in the form of a nasal spray, but were told that it would reduce their negative reactions to distressing images if they believed that it would. The control group received the same treatment, but were instead told that it would improve the clarity of the researcher’s readings. Both groups were then shown emotionally negative images.

Key takeaway(s) from this research: Participants knowingly taking the placebo self reported less distress upon viewing emotionally negative images compared with the control group. Furthermore, researchers observed less neural activity associated with emotional distress in the experimental group, suggesting that participants weren’t just telling the researchers what they thought they wanted to hear.

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