Quackery vs. Science

When I tell people about the principles of Yekize I get three common responses:

  1. “Isn’t that just the placebo effect…?”
  2. *sceptical look* “I’m sure that can be explained scientifically instead…”
  3. “That’s a really interesting idea – tell me more…”

There are no prizes for guessing which of these responses I prefer, but I think it’s time to confront these first two comments head on…

1. “Isn’t that JUST the placebo effect”

This comment is probably one of the most frustrating, because it is based on a misconception: the idea that the placebo effect is an insignificant change that only has statistical relevance in clinical trials, and no where else. A friend of mine once put it rather nicely:

“Yes it is a placebo, but the placebo effect WORKS..!”

The placebo effect is a tool used in clinical trials, to establish the strength of a medical intervention, but it is so much more than this… As Schapiro & Shapiro so clearly put it:

“The history of medicine, is essentially the history of the placebo effect”

By this they mean, that the vast majority of treatments and cures from history have had no pharmacological basis, but still people used these remedies for a reason. They used them, because they DID improve things for people. Why else would so many medical traditions survive for so long. Blood letting had been a common treatment for all sorts of ailments since antiquity and continued to be popular even into the 20th century. Whilst conventional medicines generally offer stronger effects, than the placebo, trials have found that the placebo effect can account for 30-50% of a drug’s efficacy. This is no insignificant amount…

This type of placebo effect is largely dependent upon anticipated effects: a patient expects to feel better after taking some bitter-tasting medicine, and so they are. This method is heavily integrated with psychology and so there is a large variation between the levels to which different people respond to the placebo. But these anticipation mechanisms can also be used to increase the potency of a drug, aid recovery and reduce symptoms for the patient. Therefore, they are still an area worth pursing for the people that may benefit: after all, even standard medications can vary widely from person to person.

But the placebo effect is more than the anticipated effects. Neuroscientist, Fabrizio Benedetti has found that the 30-50% can actually be increased to 90% using the neuroimmune conditioning method. This is where a patient is given a drug for a conditioning period, then they are given an identical looking placebo, the patient’s body will then respond to the cues of placebo as if it were the real drug for a limited time period (e.g. 48 hours). This response relies less on psychology and more on an interaction between the brain and the immune system. Research has shown that this method can cause neuroplasticity (changes in the brain’s synapses/connections) as well as increased levels of various helpful chemicals in the body i.e. dopamine.

Due to the strength of response from the conditioned placebo response, this is the area which Yekize is most interested in pursuing. We believe that integrating this method into treatment could dramatically alleviate the pressure on existing medical supplies, as well as make treatment more affordable to patients. You can find out more about our plans here.

2. *sceptical look* “I’m sure that can be explained scientifically instead…”

I have one key response to this: “The science here, IS the placebo effect!”

As a neuroscientist myself, I understand the value of having a scientific basis for your claims. I am aware that science does not always produce the results you would like, but that you have to do your best to remove bias from your interpretation of evidence. But there are few other medical concepts that have quite so much behind them as the placebo effect. After all, the history of medicine – prior to the last century – is effectively the history of the placebo effect…

With so many historical resources, the placebo effect admittedly has little quantitative evidence behind it. But this is not because evidence doesn’t support the placebo effect, but rather because most funding bodies (and pharmaceutical companies) don’t finance research in this area. Although, it should be noted, that this has begun to change, with designated placebo research groups springing up at world leading universities: Harvard, Oxford, Southampton, Turin… This is because serious and respected academic scientists are beginning to see the potential in exploring the placebo effect further.

Most researchers involved in this field, would probably agree, that we do not yet know of every placebo mechanism, but the fact remains: the placebo effect is a part of science and should be explored further scientifically.

The placebo effects are simply too good to be left to the realms of quackery. It’s time we recognise this and start making change to help those who need it most.



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