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Placebo effect is strongest for hopeful, research finds

By Melissa Healy Published: November 27, 2012

Don't be fooled by some of the jargon of biomedical research: People who respond strongly to placebo medications are not dummies. A new study finds they tend to be people you would describe in much more favorable terms: straightforward, tough in the face of difficulty, and willing to lend others a hand.

Maybe the people who don't respond well to placebos are the dummies: Angry, hostile and prone to negativity, these people seem far less capable of harnessing their minds to the task of healing their bodies, says the new research.

In clinical trials, a placebo is a “dummy” therapy, a sham version of the real thing. It helps give researchers a basis for comparison. If an experimental drug or treatment works far better than the placebo, its effect is presumed to be “real.” The “placebo effect” was long dismissed as an improvement that is “all in your head”: imagined, ephemeral, the response of the gullibly hopeful.

The problem is that the effect is very real, a powerful testament to the mind's influence over physical pain, infection and disease. The belief that a treatment will work can help mobilize the immune system, blunt pain and promote healing.

For doctors, knowing who is most, and least, responsive to the placebo effect can be a useful clue to which patients are primed to heal and which may need more aggressive therapy. And for researchers trying to disentangle a treatment's direct effects from those supplied by the study participant, it would be helpful to know which subjects would probably respond irrespective of whether they get the real thing or the sham.

Now, both have their answer, published this month in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology. About 50 volunteers at the University of Michigan completed assessments that nail down personality traits known to stay stable across most people's life spans. In addition to gauges of altruism and empathy, they completed measures of neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

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