In search of greater knowledge of the placebo effect

Holy grail

28 Oct 2015


Ben Colagiuri


The placebo effect is a fascinating phenomenon, with important implications for medical treatment and clinical trials, says Dr Ben Colagiuri a lecturer and the University of Sydney and recent recipient of the prestigious NSW Young Tall Poppy Science Award. We catch up with him about what he has discovered so far, and what his holy grail moment would be.

What’s the issue your research is trying to solve?

My research explores the placebo effect, which occurs when patients’ beliefs about their treatment influence their outcomes.

What have you discovered so far? 

My students and I have found that placebo treatment can provide relief from pain and nausea and improve sleep quality and cognitive function. However, we have also shown that placebo treatment can lead to negative outcomes. For example, we found that warning patients about side effects can increase actual side effect occurrence.

What’s been your biggest hurdle? 

Thankfully, most of my research has run fairly smoothly to date. Probably the biggest challenge is accessing clinical populations, which is where some of the most interesting and relevant placebo effect findings occur.

 If you could discover one thing in your research, what would it be? (e.g. what’s your holy grail?)

There has been a lot of debate about whether placebo effects simply add onto drug effects. Clinical trials using placebo controls assume this type of ‘additivity’ when they estimate drug efficacy as the effect in the drug arm minus the effect in the placebo arm. But, there has been very little research into placebo-drug additivity, mainly because it is very difficult to test. So I would love to definitively show whether the additivity assumption is true or not. If it is not true – which I suspect – then we need to explore news ways to test drugs and other medical treatments.

 How is your research likely to impact patients?

For reasons like the placebo-drug additivity issue, understanding the placebo effect is essential for accurately determining treatment efficacy and therefore impacts our ability to identify and recommend effective treatments for patients. With greater knowledge of the placebo effect we may also be able to harness the placebo effect in clinical practice by adjusting aspects of the treatment context to enhance positive placebo effects (like pain relief) and minimise negative ones (like side effects).

 What does your perfect day look like?

A lazy morning reading the paper in the sun with a coffee in hand followed by a long lunch with friends, somewhere with a view of the water, and returning home to find out that all my grants have been funded.

 If you could keep three possessions what would they be? 

My car (1973 Mercedes SLK 450), our family farm (say “No” to coal seam gas exploration), and my grandfather’s walking stick.

What would you like your epitaph to say? 

Not “a member of the placebo group”

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