Take Two Sugar Pills and Call Me in the Morning

Walter A. Brown envisions it clearly. The day will come when a woman can walk into his office complaining of debilitating panic attacks and depression, and he will draw a vial of blood and ship it off for genetic analysis. When the test results come back, they will tell Brown that, according to his patient’s DNA, she should do just as well on sugar pills as on any antidepressant or anti-anxiety drug. Instead of prescribing psychiatric medications, he can send her home with a prescription that reads, simply: placebo.

While such a scenario is purely hypothetical, it might not remain that way for long. Over the past decade, a number of clinical studies have begun to show that people who improve on placebos are genetically different than those who don’t. And although the American Medical Association has long considered it unethical for doctors to give placebos without informing their patients1—the doctor-patient relationship is predicated on a mutual trust—several clinical trials have now shown that placebos do not require deception to be effective.2,3,4 “Contrary to what intuition would tell you, many people are willing to take a substance when they are told it is a placebo,” says Brown, a

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