“A Placebo Conundrum” by Michael Brooks

beyond-imagination-marina-harrisIT SEEMED like a good idea until I saw the electrodes. Dr Luana Colloca’s white coat offered scant reassurance. “Do you mind receiving a series of electric shocks?” she asked.

I could hardly say no – after all, this was why I was here. Colloca’s colleague, Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin in Italy, had invited me to come and experience their placebo research first hand. Colloca strapped an electrode to my forearm and sat me in a reclining chair in front of a computer screen. “Try to relax,” she said.

First, we established my pain scale by determining the mildest current I could feel, and the maximum amount I could bear. Then Colloca told me that, before I got another shock, a red or a green light would appear on the computer screen.

A green light meant I would receive a mild shock. A red light meant the shock would be more severe, like the jolt you get from an electric fence. All I had to do was rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10, mild to severe. Continue reading “A Placebo Conundrum” by Michael Brooks

Biology & Belief

BELIEF has never literally moved a mountain, but it can have some dramatic effects. Take Madeleine Rizan. By the time she bathed in the waters of Lourdes in 1858 she had been paralysed for 24 years, yet, according to the record, she regained her ability to move. Then there are the dozens of heart patients in the 1950s who were helped by a procedure known as internal mammary ligation – which worked just as well when patients simply believed it had been done. There are even instances of women who stop menstruating, grow a round belly and begin to lactate, in the firm but mistaken belief that they are pregnant. Equally mysterious are the paralysed people who believe their limbs are still working normally, despite the evidence of their own eyes.

What is going on inside our brains when we believe? How does that trigger physical changes in our bodies? And why would our minds believe the world is a certain way in flat contradiction to the evidence of our own senses? Or, put another way, what exactly is the biological basis of belief? “It’s a fascinating question and poorly studied,” says Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neurologist at the University of California at San Diego who has spent much of his career studying “disorders of belief”. Dean Hamer, from the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and author of The God Gene, goes further. “We have absolutely no idea,” he says. “Nobody has any idea.” Continue reading Biology & Belief

His Pain : Her Pain

JON LEVINE was just testing painkillers on people who’d had a wisdom tooth extracted, when he uncovered rather more than he’d bargained for. The women in his study group found that strong painkillers related to morphine, called kappa-opioids, were most effective at numbing pain. But the same drugs didn’t work for the men at all. “In fact, the doses used in the clinical trial made pain worse for men,” says Levine, a clinical neuroscientist from the University of California in San Francisco.

He was shocked. “The idea that a therapy that had been around for decades could affect women and men in such dramatically different ways was anathema,” he says. “It was such an incredible mindset in the field of pain, missing what had clearly gone on in front of their eyes for years.” Continue reading His Pain : Her Pain

The Intelligent Body by Michael Hyland

IT’S all rubbish!” cry the sceptics steeped in conventional medicine. Yet for all their clamour, it’s clear that complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) works, and can sometimes rid people of chronic disease. How do we bridge this gap? Do we continue to treat one branch of medicine as science and the other as magic? Perhaps there’s a third way.

Conventional medicine regards the body as a machine, like a jumbo jet or a computer. It assumes that the body becomes diseased in much the same way a machine breaks down—when a specific part goes wrong.

CAM has a very different philosophy: the idea that the healthy body is a system in balance, and that disease can be created by a fault that is distributed over the whole body. Because this idea is so obviously at odds with convention, CAM has always appeared unscientific. Continue reading The Intelligent Body by Michael Hyland