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Kathy Sykes looks at healing

Last night's BBC programme on alternative medicine looked at healing. Kathy Sykes, the presenter, saw people whose symptoms, mainly of pain, were dramatically helped by healing. She professed to be puzzled by this and unable to think of a scientific explanation, although it was pretty obvious that she must assume it was a placebo response.

Sure enough, she went on to interview various researchers on the placebo effect and concluded that it is indeed a valuable but neglected medical phenomenon; her conclusion was that we ought to be investigating it further and making use of it.

There was nothing much new here for anyone reasonably familiar with the field. What was somewhat startling was the description of a clinical experiment in which some patients had fake surgery on their knees; they were given a general anaesthetic and had superficial incisions only. One patient interviewed, I think 7 years later, still had good pain relief. This was certainly impressive but there is surely an ethical problem about the trial. Was ethical approval sought? One assumes it was, but it should have been mentioned. And what would have happened if a patient having a fake operation had died under the anaesthetic?

Another researcher had found that patients suffering from Parkinson¿s disease had dopamine release in their brains when given placebo injections of saline. This was certainly interesting, but difficult to understand, because the problem in Parkinson¿s disease is failure of dopamine secretion in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia. It wasn¿t clear how a placebo could make cells function when they were already defective.

Anyway, if it is true that placebos can improve the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, this may explain a recent report that the miracle required for the sanctification of the late Pope has now been reported; it was in a petient with Parkinson's.

As usual in such programmes, we have well known facts being presented as if they had just been discovered. An example was the finding that the effectiveness of placebo pills varied according to their colour. This has been known for many years. The same applies to the effectiveness being related to the size of the pills and the number given.

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