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Stanford University School of Medicine

Exploring the puzzle of belief and healing

lpcu8hngu2e-aaron-burdenThe healing powers of belief and faith have long been known. But it's taken scientists many years to start to understand some of the biochemical processes driving patients' unexpected improvements in health.

The cover article in the December issue of National Geographic digs into the science behind the power of belief and healing, and it draws on a Stanford-based story to tell the tale.

It begins in 2004, when patient Mike Pauletich was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson's disease. He struggled with depression and movement problems and in 2011, turned to a clinical trial testing the injection of a drug into the brain. The article explains:

Pauletich’s improvement after the surgery was impressive. Before the trial he had struggled to move around. He had to constantly explain to clients of his technology development company that his slurred speech wasn’t caused by drinking. After the procedure his shaking disappeared, his mobility improved, and his speech became markedly clearer. (Today you can hardly tell he has the disease at all.) His doctor on the study, [Stanford's] Kathleen Poston, [MD] was astonished.

Good news, indeed. But here's the rub: Pauletich didn't get the drug, which turned out not to work anyway. He received the placebo -- a surgery without a drug injection. The article continues:

How does a belief become so potent it can heal? Back to the theater: A crucial part of an inspiring performance is sets and costumes. When Pauletich experienced improvement in his symptoms, it wasn’t just because of the divots he could feel in his head or what the doctors told him about surgery. It was the whole scene he’d experienced: the doctors in their white coats, stethoscopes around their necks; the nurses, checkups, tests, maybe even the bad music in the hospital waiting room. Physicians sometimes call these trappings around hospitals the theater of medicine.

For more on the "theater of medicine," including the author's visit to a surprisingly professional brujo, or witch doctor, in Mexico, the article is well worth a read.

Previously: Blues progression: From a dye to a placebo to an Alzheimer's treatment?, Do placebos provide a mental cue to kickstart the immune system and Debating the placebo as treatment
Photo by Aaron Burden

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