Findings published this week in the journal Molecular Psychiatry suggest that the empathy and confidence a doctor has in his or her ability to provide patient relief may jump-start a placebo response in patients. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, using a “thermal pain stimulator” conveyed a dose of heat that ranged from uncomfortable to painful to the arm of 18 physician-subjects. During the testing period the researchers scanned the doctors’ brains to see which areas reacted to the pain stimulation. During the next phase a “patient” was seated  at the foot of the scanner and the pain stimulator and an analgesia device were attached to the patient’s arm. The physician-subjects were given controls for both while his or her brain was being scanned. In reality, the patients were acting – they responded to the “pain” with various facial expressions. The machines were turned off, but the physician- subjects were not aware of it. When the physician-subjects “sent” pain to the patients without an analgesic, researchers noted high activity in brain areas that had been active when the physicians felt pain. Interestingly, the experiment also triggered an area in both hemispheres of the brain called the temporoparietal junction – which has been linked with moral decision-making and altruism.

While previous research shows that belief in an effect can activate brain responses, these results are the first to associate the placebo effect in doctors who connect with their patients. Senior author Ted Kaptchuk, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School said, “one of the things we are seeing is that these intangibles that we call “the art of medicine” are just as tangible and important as the tricks in the black bag.”     Time Health & Family  1/30/13    Los Angeles Times  1/31/13

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