Historically, the placebo has often been regarded by medical researchers as something of a nuisance, which at best can be “controlled for”. Drug firms spend millions of dollars and pounds sterling annually, in an attempt to eradicate it from their studies and it is quite commonplace for researchers to lay great stress on their belief that the effects of their new ‘wonder’ discovery “…cannot be accounted for by placebo effects alone”. What is of course interesting is another regular phenomenon often evident in such studies, which commonly shows that a given percentage of subjects almost always improve on placebo alone. For example a research report may state that whereas only 19% of the placebo (control) group showed marked improvement, some 62% of the new drug (experimental) group similarly improved. So what, I ask myself, is happening among that 19%?
There are of course several reasons why unwell people recover. Many minor illnesses are self-limited, in that even if nothing were done, the patient would,sooner or later, recover. Also, certain treatments may well contain active ingredients, which support recovery: even leeches (once widely used as a recommended treatment) have been found to impart active and biochemical substances that are known to counter certain illnesses. And one wonders to what extent simple belief in the healer and his entourage, especially in days gone by, has healed more sick patients than potions dispensed. In other words, “belief can heal”. Of course, this is not to decry the many proven (and a few unproven) remedies, which unquestionably play a vital role in the health of individuals and nations. Nor is it to in any way downgrade research, which in its ‘state of the art’ form is as welcome as it is vital. Nevertheless – and if nothing more – all this and more continues to support the concept of a sophisticated and continuing pattern of communication between brain and the body’s immune system and one which we can indeed exploit in the several ways already ‘mooted’ in these blogs.
I began this blog with reference to the mere ‘pinprick’ of the light of a distant star appearing in an otherwise dark outlook of despair. As a child, I knew a man – who in fact lived in the same avenue – and who was a teacher at the local school. On the occasion in question he had only just been demobbed from the Royal Air Force, shortly after the Second World War. Our paths crossed one very dark night on the way home, when although the “blackout” had been lifted, effective street lighting was still a thing of the future. He gladly shared his torch with me and indeed, saw me right to our front door. As we walked home together deep in conversation, I remarked something to the effect that with no moon on that otherwise clear night, it was a pity that stars didn’t provide a little more light. I well remember how he took my comment up with much seriousness, telling me of his great interest in Astronomy. “I am hoping” he said, “to find just one star, as you put it, which may well not perhaps give off much light to you but which to me will appear as daylight”. And he did! He was (and in this instance, I am happy to supply the correct name) Mr. G.E.D. Alcock; the discoverer in 1959 of two comets (Alcock’s Comets) and three novae a few years after that. So you see, a tiny amount of the light of hope it may well be to some; but to others, it can mean simply everything. And the generating force behind all of that? Well it’s the brain’s own ‘pharmacy’; of course! (C)SB.