News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by

Placebos can have a positive effect in treating depression, study finds

A UCLA study explores how placebo can effect depression.
A UCLA study explores how placebo can effect depression.
Flickr - Creative Commons

Listen to story

Download this story 2MB

Major depression is one of the most common mental health issues for adults in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Mental Health. 

A new study out of UCLA finds that placebos — sugar pills that patients think are medication — can be a powerful way to treat depression.

Dr. Andrew  Leuchter is a professor of psychiatry at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. He is also the lead author of the placebo study.

“In short,” said Leuchter in an article on UCLA's website, “if you think a pill is going to work, it probably will.”

The UCLA researchers examined three forms of treatment, the article explains. One was supportive care in which a therapist assessed the patient’s risk and symptoms, and provided emotional support and encouragement but refrained from providing solutions to the patient’s issues that might result in specific therapeutic effects. The other two treatments provided the same type of therapy, but patients also received either medication or placebos and were told that what they were taking could be either one. 

Leuchter talks more about the study and the power of placebo. 


Why this study?

We were originally testing only anti-depressant medication and we had placebos as a control condition. What we discovered was the assumption that placebos are not treatment and are of no benefit is a false assumption. That, in fact, there are a number of people that feel better with placebos.  So we wanted to know how is it that some feel better with placebos?

What did you discover with people with the placebo?

The degree to which people engaged in the process, trusted the doctors and nurses, felt the people cared about them, that predicted improvement regardless of what treatment they got.

We also looked at belief in power of medications. To what degree do you believe medication is powerful and can help you get well. And the degree to which they endorsed a strong belief in medication predicted who was going to respond to placebo. So it turns out whether you believe in medication or not, you can get better with medication. But if you're taking a placebo, that belief in the power of medication is an essential ingredient to actually getting benefit from the placebo.

The expectations we bring to treatment, which are a summation of all of our experiences in the world--seeing doctors, hearing about people's expectations with medication--say a lot about how we are going to do in treatment. It was what they already believed when they came in that shaped a lot of their expectations.

What do you think people should take away from this study? Many might think, 'If I just have the power of positive thinking that should solve all my problems.'

That's definitely not the message we want people to take home. Depression is a serious medical illness. It affects 15 million people a year. Most people don't get adequate treatment; medications and psychotherapy are definitely effective. People who suffer from depression should get treatment. Expectations, hopes and desires, those play a role on whether people get well, but they are not a substitute for a genuine effective medical treatment. What we want people to take home from this: Get treated and if you doubt the effectiveness of treatment, tell the person treating you and work on your expectations.