The placebo effect is notoriously difficult to quantify. But findings announced today in the journal Science may shed light on the mysterious phenomenon. According to the report, researchers at the University of British Columbia have demonstrated that in patients with Parkinson's disease, the placebo effect produces the same results as pharmaceuticals.

Raul de la Fuente-Fernandez and colleagues used positron emission tomography (PET) to study the brains of 12 patients suffering from Parkinsons disease while they received treatment. Half of the patients received two courses of injections. During the first round, they didnt know whether they were receiving a placebo or an active drug. In the second, however, the patients were told which injection they were receiving. The remaining patients, who had similarly severe symptoms, were tested only in an open manner. The team measured the amount of dopamine released by the brains damaged neuronsthe signature effect of drug treatment on the disease. Intriguingly, patients who received placebo injections exhibited significant dopamine releases. The authors conclude that dopamine release "is linked to expectation of a reward in this case, the anticipation of therapeutic benefit."

The researchers also investigated whether the placebo effect might actually enhance the results of active drug therapy in a synergistic manner. They found, however, that the placebo response does not strengthen the effect of an active drug. In fact, they write, their results "suggest that in some patients, most of the benefit obtained from an active drug might derive from a placebo effect."