The placebo effect is not only real; its ability to deaden pain has been pinpointed to cells in the spinal cord. That raises hopes for new ways of treating conditions such as chronic pain.
The researchers who made the discovery scanned the spinal cords of volunteers while applying painful heat to one arm. Then they rubbed a cream onto the arm and told the volunteers that it contained a painkiller – but in fact it had no active ingredient. Even so, the cream made spinal-cord neural activity linked to pain vanish.
“This type of mechanism has been envisioned for over 40 years for placebo analgesia,” says Donald Price, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, who was not involved in the new study. “This study provides the most direct test of this mechanism to date.”