You have probably heard about the Placebo effect. We know new drugs are measured against the placebo effect because a good percentage of people get better just by taking sugar pills.

I think a lot of us don't take the time to consider how crazy this is. Some pretty major health conditions are "cured" by basically the belief that the pill or injection will work.

This is obviously power of the mind stuff, but until recently scientists had never been able to actually "see" the placebo effect actually working in the brain.

Thanks to Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (f MRI) and PET scans, researchers can now see the brain work in real time.

The Placebo Research

A researcher named Jon-Kar Zubieta, a neurologist at the University of Michigan, used some amazing trickery in order to discover that the driver of placebo effect in the brain is an area called the nucleus accumbens (NAcc).

What is interesting, (and actually makes sense) is that this area of the brain is responsible for our expectancy of reward.

I won't go into too much detail about the actual study (it involved researchers sticking subjects in the jaw with a needle to cause pain – OUCH!!!), and then giving them an intravenous pain cure.

The cure of course was just plain old saline solution (a placebo).

The PET scans revealed that the placebo caused an actual dopamine boost with highest dopamine release coming from the nucleus accumbens (NAcc).

All the subjects experienced some relief, but some more than others.

So the researchers used fMRI on the same subjects to see if there was a correlation between those who got the best placebo effect with those who potentially had the mostactive nucleus accumbens (NAcc).

Scientists are tricky! Here is how they pulled it off.

While using f MRI to monitor brain activity, they had the subjects play a game where they could receive monetary rewards. The anticipation of reward intensified the activity in the nucleus accumbens.

The cool part is that the people who had the highest activity in the NAcc during the game are the same people who had the most profound placebo effect in the pain part of the study.

The Take Home

So it seems that it pays to have an NAcc that hums if you want to get cured by a sugar pill.

I have been thinking about this study a lot and it begs this question.

Could we actually train ourselves to enhance our expectancy of reward, thus strengthening the NA? If so, this might mean we could develop some ability for self healing. Or it just might be genetic – nobody knows right now.

Here is the citation for the study I just summarized.

Scott et al.: Individual Differences in Reward Responding

Explain Placebo-Induced Expectations and Effects

Publishing in Neuron 55, 325–336, July 19, 2007. DOI


The research is still in its early stages and I would curious if any of you have any other real research on the subject (not new age mumbo jumbo, but real peer reviewedresearch).

If you do, just post it below.

Here are some other cool facts about the placebo effect:

  • Orange, Red and other hot colored tablets work better as stimulants.

  • Cool colored ones (blue, green, purple) work better as depressants.

  • Big pills generally work better than small pills!

  • Higher priced pills work better than lower priced pills.

  • Injections work better than tablets

  • And "branded" tablets work better than unbranded tablets!