Brain Can Help Placebo Effect

The human brain can draw on many different pain-fighting options when the body is receiving placebo treatments for pain, according to a study published in the Journal of 'Neuroscience (January 11, 2006).

People who received fake acupuncture treatment experienced relief of pain and showed pronounced activity in areas of the brain responsible for pain relief. This pattern of brain activity differed from that previously noted in a 2004 study at Columbia University. In that study, a placebo cream applied topically to the volunteer's arm provided relief after heat was applied to the skin.

The lead researcher of the new study said that multiple brain mechanisms might be the underlying cause of the differences in brain waves.

In the Neuroscience study, researchers established the pain tolerance levels of 16 volunteers by applying heat to the right forearm until low and high pain boundaries could be measured. The volunteers were then allowed to read descriptions of acupuncture treatment to prepare them for the study. Researchers used placebo acupuncture needles that retract when they come in contact with skin.

A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner was used to measure blood flow in the volunteers' brains.

The participants reported feeling significantly less pain in the right arm than in their left arm during treatment. Intense neural activity in six areas of the brain was also shown. The activity was in areas that were responsible for pain perception, external event monitoring, and disturbing emotions such as anxiety.

Earlier research had demonstrated that nerve projections from the spinal cord could create temporary elevated pain sensitivity if the skin around it was heated.

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