60-Second Science

Great Expectations Heighten Placebo Effect

Migraine patients who were told they were getting a real drug did better than those who got the same treatment but who were told they were getting a placebo


The messages doctors give can influence some treatments’ effectiveness. For example, it seems that information from a doctor affects outcomes for migraine sufferers—whether they got a real drug or a placebo. 

Researchers studied 66 people with recurring migraines over the course of seven attacks.

During the first headache, the patients received no treatment. For the next six, they were given either a placebo or a drug. Each time, regardless of which they got, some were told it was the drug, some were told it was the placebo, and the rest were informed that it could be either the drug or the placebo.

Overall, the drug did work better than the placebo. But the placebo worked, too—both when the patients were told it was a placebo, and even better when the doctors told them that they were getting the drug. That is, when the docs set their expectations high.

Meanwhile, the actual drug was least effective when the patients thought it was a placebo. The study is in the journal Science Translational Medicine. [Slavenka Kam-Hansen et al., Altered Placebo and Drug Labeling Changes the Outcome of Episodic Migraine Attacks]

The physician’s input thus plays a role in how migraine patients fare. Tell them they’re getting a good treatment, and they’re apparently more likely to respond.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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