Underplayed redundancy in placebo effect research (on cheap vs costly fake medicine)

Alberto J. Espay, M.D., lead author of the later study

A celebrated 2015 research paper makes much the same discovery as a paper that won an Ig Nobel Prize for medicine years earlier. The discovery is about the power of pricing fake medicines. The new paper makes only an indirect, beery allusion to the earlier, Ig Nobel Prize-winning research.

That 2008 Ig Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded to Dan ArielyRebecca L. WaberBaba Shiv, and Ziv Carmon, for demonstrating that high-priced fake medicine is more effective than low-priced fake medicine. Their prize-winning paper is “Commercial Features of Placebo and Therapeutic Efficacy,” Rebecca L. Waber; Baba Shiv; Ziv Carmon; Dan Ariely, Journal of the American Medical Association, March 5, 2008; 299: 1016-1017.

The more recent published study is: “Placebo effect of medication cost in Parkinson disease—A randomized double-blind study,” Alberto J. Espay [pictured here], Matthew M. Norris, James C. Eliassen, Alok Dwivedi, Matthew S. Smith, Christi Banks, Jane B. Allendorfer, Anthony E. Lang, David E. Fleck, Michael J. Linke, and Jerzy P. Szaflarski, Neurology, vol. 84, no. 8, 2015.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: In the first version of this blog item we had the dates scrambled. Sorry about that!]

The newer paper does cite one of the Ig Nobel Prize-winning authors (Dan Ariely), but  indirectly, in this footnote allusion:

Lee L, Frederick S, Ariely D. “Try it, you’ll like it: the influence of expectation, consumption, and revelation on preferences for beer. Psychol Sci 2006;17:1054–1058.

The Los Angeles Times did a report about the new report, with the headline ” ‘Expensive’ placebos work better than ‘cheap’ ones, study finds.” The news report about the medical report says:

How do you convert a simple saline solution into a useful treatment for people with Parkinson’s disease? Tell them it’s a drug that costs $100 per dose. And if you want to make it even more effective, tell them it costs $1,500 instead.
That’s what researchers from the University of Cincinnati discovered in an unusual clinical trial. Instead of testing a placebo against an actual drug, they pitted two placebos against each other. The only difference between the two sham treatments was their purported price….

“Placebo can be the physician’s friend,” a pair of neurologists wrote an editorial that accompanied the study. “The outcome of this study … opens our eyes to another nuance of placebo effect.”

(Thanks to Scott Langill for bringing this to our attention.)

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