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Placebo effect matters

Science Daily reports that learning-related brain activity in Parkinson’s patients improves as much in response to a placebo treatment as to real medication, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and Columbia University.

For the new study, the research team used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 18 Parkinson’s patients as they played a computer game that measures reward learning. In the game, participants discover through trial and error which of two symbols is more likely to lead to a better outcome, in this case a small monetary reward or simply not losing any money.

The Parkinson’s patients played the game three times: when they were not taking any medication, when they took real medication (dissolved in orange juice), and when they took a placebo, which consisted of drinking orange juice that they thought contained their medication. The researchers found that the dopamine-rich areas of the brain associated with reward learning — the striatum and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex — became equally active when patients took either the real medication or the placebo treatment.

Journal Reference:

Liane Schmidt, Erin Kendall Braun, Tor D Wager, Daphna Shohamy. Mind matters: placebo enhances reward learning in Parkinson’s disease. Nature Neuroscience, 2014; 17 (12): 1793 DOI: 10.1038/nn.3842

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