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Genetics Could Be The Reason Why Placebo’s Can Cure Ailments
An investigation as to why some people get better from ailments after having medical treatment using placebo’s (Simulated medical treatment for a disease or condition designed to deceive the recipient that they are receiving a valid treatment) has found that it may well be in the individuals genetic makeup.

104 volunteers with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) took part in a study on the ‘placebo effect’ of treatments.

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It was found that people with a certain type of genetic composition responded to this type of inert therapeutic treatment. COMT (Catechol-O-Methyltransferase) is an enzyme that breaks down natural body chemicals such as dopamine and epinephrine, which are known as catechol amines. There are different types of stimulant medication that reproduce the same properties as catecholamine.

Placebo acupuncture was used in this study; it used fake needles that did not enter the skin to the depth of normally applied needles. They were also not positioned on an acupuncture pressure point, which would usually be used for IBS therapy.

How the treatment was administered could also be bought into the equation. Of the three groups, one received no treatment at all and of the two that did, one had it carried out in a clinical environment. The second medicated group obtained their therapy through a specialist in a soothing atmosphere.

When a period of three weeks had elapsed the volunteers were asked if they had experienced any changes in their condition. Blood tests were also done to see if there was any change in the COMT genes.

The leader and author of the study is Dr Kathryn Hall, a gastroenterologist at Harvard University US. She is doing the research through the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre (BIDMC). The COMT gene is being used because "there has been increasing evidence that the neurotransmitter dopamine is activated when people anticipate and respond to placebos", said Dr Hall.

It was found that those with COMT had three times the amount of dopamine present at the front of their brain, which didn’t alter without any treatment but did when the placebo acupuncture was applied.

They were finding that it was not just the treatment that was working, but also the way it was administered, as in the friendly calm scenario as opposed to a basic hospital consultation.

Previous studies into anxiety cures indicated that placebos worked but that serotonin was the active marker on this occasion. This brings the need to cover many genetic possibilities and combinations, which could change according to the ailment.

In his position as the first academic ever to be a Professor of Complementary Medicine, Edzard Ernst who is now retired from Bristol University, said that it was an interesting outcome for the early stages of research.

"It could solve the age-old question of why some individuals respond to placebo, while others do not.”

And if so, it could impact importantly on clinical practice. But Dr Ernst did advise caution as this may only apply to IBS and a wider field of surveyed patients would be needed just to confirm the results for IBS.

Physicists are sure that other ailments could be helped in this way, but condition specific research would need to be carried out to confirm their predictions.

Written by Frances Cerulean

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