Understanding the Placebo Effect in Clinical Research

March 08, 2019


While most who haven’t participated in them may not know much about clinical trials, one related term that even many outside the medical community are well aware of is the “placebo effect.” Commonly used in many ways, including some that might not actually be correct, the placebo effect refers to the power of the mind in coordination with bodily health.

At AGA Clinical Trials, all our researchers are well aware of the placebo effect and how it impacts the clinical studies we offer. Many of our studies do indeed utilize placebos to help differentiate between the true effects of a given drug or treatment – here are some basics on the placebo effect, its role in clinical research, and the options generally available to you if you’re part of a study that includes placebo use.


Placebo Effect Basics

Firstly, let’s define what a placebo is for anyone who isn’t aware. Placebo is defined as “a harmless pill, medicine or procedure prescribed more for the psychological benefit to the patient than for any physiological effect.” Placebos might be used in some cases to calm or please someone from a mental standpoint, but they’re most commonly used during clinical testing for new drugs.

The placebo effect, then, is the mental effect that can take place when someone thinks they’ve been given a medication or drug, but in reality have actually been given a non-active ingredient like a sugar pill. What’s interesting is that the placebo effect can still cause real health effects – people will often report reductions in symptoms or feeling better even after taking a placebo.

For researchers, though, it’s important to separate situations where this is the case from the actual effectiveness of a drug. More in this below.


Impact on Clinical Trials

First of all, it should be noted that not all clinical trials utilize placebos. There are many trial formats that do not, and if you prefer to only be involved in these, that’s completely okay.

Within the research setting, medical professionals will use the placebo as a control variable. Some trial participants will receive it while some others receive the actual medication or drug being tested. In some trials, even the researchers themselves will not know which patients were given the placebo and which were given the real thing (this is called a double-blind study).


Options for Participants

As we noted above, not all studies use placebos. If a study you’re participating in or scheduled to participate in does utilize them, you have a few options available if needed:

  • You can drop out of a study at the appropriate time.

  • Many studies will include “rescue therapy” for patients who are not experiencing any benefit, whether due to a placebo or some other reason. This therapy involves switching them to an approved therapy for the same condition.

  • In addition, even if you receive a placebo, the effect we noted above may take place and you might feel better even without treatment.

For more on the placebo effect and how it impacts clinical research, or to learn about any of our trials or how to volunteer, speak to the staff at AGA Clinical Trials today.[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”50px”][/vc_column][/vc_row]


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