New research published in Nature Communications has found that placebos reduce brain markers of emotional distress even when people are aware they’re taking an inactive substance.

The placebo effect typically occurs when a person unknowingly receives a fake treatment. But a growing body of research indicates that the placebo effect can occur even when people are aware that they are taking an inactive pill.

The new study provides some of the first evidence that these non-deceptive placebos impact neural responses that are relevant to emotional processing, raising hopes they could be used in the treatment of certain mental disorders.

“Placebos are primarily used as comparison groups for other treatments, but I saw the translational potential of using them as interventions in themselves to help promote psychological and physical health. Then I recognized some of the barriers that prevented that from happening, so I wanted to see if we can address these issues,” explained lead researcher Darwin A. Guevarra (@GuevarraDarwin), a postdoctoral fellow at Michigan State University.

In two experiments with 280 participants in total, the researchers showed two separate groups of people a series of emotional images. Prior to this task, the participants were randomly assigned to a control or non-deceptive placebo group.

The non-deceptive placebo group members read about placebo effects and were asked to inhale a saline solution nasal spray. They were told that the nasal spray was a placebo that contained no active ingredients but would help reduce their negative feelings if they believed it would. The control group members also inhaled the same saline solution spray, but were told that the spray improved the clarity of the physiological readings the researchers were recording.

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