The Placebo Effect

Placebo Effect Matrix

In all likelihood, you’ve heard of the Placebo Effect before. Not Placebo, the whiney, androgynous, English alternative rock group. I’m talking about the Placebo Effect. I find that the best and most scientifically accurate explanation of this fascinating phenomenon is provided by the 1970’s rock band, Journey:

“Don’t stop, belieeeeeving!! Hold on to that feeeeeeeling!!”

Definition

The Placebo Effect is the actual or at least perceived improvement noted when a patient is given a totally useless “medicine” or “treatment” for a condition or disease. Only, the patient doesn’t know that the pills he or she is taking are actually completely inert, such as sugar pills, which are about as useful in treating disease as 10 Hail Mary’s. Sugar pills can’t cure anything other than boring tea, but, interestingly enough, you can overdose on them. When you do, the results are a hammering heart rate, Type 2 diabetes and hyperactivity.

Hyperactive girl child

Why on EARTH would any doctor want to treat a patient with sugar pills? If the treatment is ineffective, aren’t they wasting the patient’s time: why would they risk that?

Well, placebos, which come in the form of medicines AND procedures, including surgery, are most importantly used in medical research and in the development of new pharmaceuticals. In other words, they’re not actually prescribed by doctors to ailing patients.

Placebos are used in clinical trials to measure the physical response of patients to a useless drug (which they believe to be the real thing), versus those on an active drug. This helps the lab-coat clad nerds developing the medicine understand what improvement is a result of actual curing versus psychological “wishful thinking”.

Playing with Placebos: How to Perform Clinical Trials on Human Lab Rats

Medical procedure placebo

First and foremost, you recruit a group of people who all have a certain disease or fulfill a certain physical profile and pay them money to be your guinea pigs. You treat half of your lab rats with the medicine you’re developing – the medicine that’s actually supposed to cure them. Then, you take the other half and you feed them sugar pills, or perform mock surgery on them. LAWD knows how you pull that off… you may get away with anesthetizing a patient, but cutting up their body with a scalpel for no darn reason is sure to piss someone off.

You tell BOTH groups that they’re receiving a treatment designed to cure their condition and its symptoms OR you don’t tell either group anything. There are, in actual fact, many different kinds of placebo procedures: some involve telling your study group that they’re receiving proper treatment (as the above example pointed out) and others involve discretion and so neither group – the test group nor the placebo group – knows whether they’re taking a real pill or a sugar pill.

You then get your guinea pigs to keep a detailed record of the way they feel and the intensity of any symptoms over the course of the next however long is necessary. This is complemented by regularly scheduled physical examinations, so that you can keep your doctorly eye over their progress, or regress in the case of Temafloxacin. Oops.

Mind Over Matter

Placebo-effect mind over matter

The awesome thing about the Placebo Effect, which is a pervasive phenomenon that has been documented in countless medical study groups and controlled clinical trials, is that many of the patients who believe they’re being treated do get better! Or at least they feel better! What doctors have found is that the Placebo Effect plays a role in just about every medical intervention we use on a daily basis, such as when you take an aspirin for a headache.

Unless you prefer headaches to sex.

Of course the medication works on a pharmaceutical level, but a small component of the treatment is you believing that it will work. The power of this positive thinking actually makes you feel better, if not physically, then at least about life in general. Hope is the heroine of the emotional spectrum (not the kind that wears a cape).

What the Placebo Effect illustrates is the incredible power of the mind in controlling our physical wellness. A fake treatment will, in all likelihood, not go so far as curing a disease (this is a science blog… let’s not get ahead of ourselves), but it certainly can distract us from the symptoms. If you believe you’re being treated for pain or fatigue, for example, the Placebo Effect can see you feeling better, more comfortable and perhaps more energetics simply because you believe you’re being treated. Your mind fuels your body’s convalescence.

mind-over-matter-funny

The same can be said for the opposite: just think how you feel after heartbreak. Physically, there is nothing wrong with you and medically, there’s no such thing as a “broken heart”. Yet, you are burdened with the most incredible fatigue, overwhelming lethargy and even slight nausea. Depression and sadness are powerful things and their physical manifestations can leave even the most stoic of individuals crippled. It therefore goes to reason that the opposite – optimism, hope, relief – can bring about the opposite physical manifestations, such as a relief of pain and more energy.

This is not fantasy, it is a phenomena that has been documented innumerable times in the medical literature. So why not use placebos to treat non-threatening conditions? It would save us a staggering amount of money on medicine while negating the need for us to pollute our bodies with expensive chemicals… wouldn’t it?

The problem is the Placebo Effect, while widely documented, is not predictable and reliable. Since it is largely the result of “mind over matter” and, let’s face it, some people’s minds are a beer short of a six-pack, this effect cannot be used as the basis for an official medical treatment. It might work for some, but it might not work for others. And when you have irritable bowel syndrome, the last thing you want is a medicine that might work or might not work. 

Something Smacks of Deception… 

placebo-funny-comic

Yes, there are a number of ethical issues concerned with using placebos. In the context of medical testing and clinical trials, the use of fake pills or procedures may be well and dandy, but many people have issues with the fact that the entire premise of a placebo is to be deceptive. A patient believes they’re being treated or at least that the doctor is trying to treat them. Imagine how you’d feel if, after 6 years of a clinical trial, you find out you’ve been taking sugar pills the whole time. And here you were thinking you had a genetic predisposition to tooth decay!

The important distinction to be made here is the use of placebos in laboratory research as opposed to clinical trials. When you’re testing a “fake” medicine on patients who need actual treatment, you’re kind of wasting their time. Also, if the condition is serious enough, you could be allowing it to progress to a point of permanent and irreversible damage. These are all issues raised by people who, interestingly enough, will take medicine when sick. The very same medicine that went through these clinical testing processes involving placebos and human lab rats.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Pills placebo

Even though placebo pills or procedures aren’t designed to actually change anything, they have been documented to work, which is pretty awesome because it highlights just how powerful our minds are. If you’ve ever felt stoned just from hanging out with a bunch of hippies (who’s stereotyping?) or drunk after a cocktail you were TOLD had tequila in it, but didn’t… then you’ve experienced the Placebo Effect, which is completely hang-over free!

The ethical debate raging around the use of placebos in clinical trials is interesting and one in which I would be torn asunder if I had to partake. While I’m all for the advancement of medical science and technology, I wouldn’t like to think that I’m being messed about by my treating physician. On the other hand, if your doctor tells you “would you like to take part in an experimental treatment, yadda yadda,” I’d be damn sure to read the fine print.

And finally… a fantastic bit of trivia: Placebo means (in Latin), “I shall please”. That doesn’t mean you can start feeding your girlfriend sugar pills in the hope that it lives up to its literal translation, but if it does work in getting her fired up in bed, be sure to let me know…

You may have stumbled across on of the biggest medical discoveries of our time.

Advertisements

The Truth About Global Warming…

Global warming diagram

Run For Cover: Hailstorms on Camera!

Hail is formed by severe thunderstorms and can range in size from super tiny pellets, which sound as though a mouse is tap-dancing on your roof, to massive grapefruits that plough straight THROUGH your roof. In this collection of three videos, we see just how large hailstones give tornadoes a run for their money in terms of the damage they can do.

For a more detailed account of hailstone formation, check out last week’s blog post: Goodness Gracious Great Balls of Ice!

Hailstorm Video # 1

This incredible video clip was filmed – mercifully – from the safety of a residential home. It records the deafening sound of massive hailstones slamming into the roof, as well as into the garden and pool. Note the huge splashes generated by the falling hailstones hitting the water and the size of the stones themselves as they accumulate on the grass.

Insurance companies in Oklahoma must have a very long and convoluted “Terms and Conditions” clause under the “Act of God” claim.

Video Source: “Hail Storm Oklahoma City” Uploaded by Beatlesfanxxl on May 16, 2010, YouTube Channel www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFv2W7Duqiw

Hailstorm Video # 2

Just when you think it can’t get any worse than having large chunks of ice smashing into your roof, porch, pool and garden vegetation, the intensity of the hailstorm swells. Suddenly, it LITERALLY starts raining branches, leaves and torn-up vegetation as this colossal hailstorm shows off its mettle. According to the person who filmed this video, the hailstones ranged in size from peas to baseballs and actually halted traffic on the interstate highways.

Thankfully, the kind of large hail produced by these large thunderstorms tends to fall in narrow swaths and as such, they rarely last longer than a minute in any one area. Still, though, that’s all it takes to leave you with enough yard cleaning to do for weeks!

Video Source: “Incredible Hailstorm Phoenix, Arizona” Uploaded by ChiliDog1723 on October 28, 2010, YouTube Channel www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XeTqp_HRIs

Hailstorm Video # 3

From beginning to end, this amazing hailstorm video shows the incredible damage done by hailstones the size of tennis balls as they smash into Woodson Texas soil, cars and even electrical cables. The guy filming it manages to pick up a couple of the hailstones to show us the size of these monsters in comparison to a quarter (US currency). Towards the end, an ambulance loads a patient who unfortunately got caught in the hailstorm and hopefully only sustained minor injuries. It just goes to show that, in storms the size and strength they are in the American Midwest, not even your car offers you sufficient refuge.

Video Source: “Very Large Hail” uploaded by Cld9trs on November 8, 2006, YouTube channel www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZr8jXo1Uso.

Today’s Sciencey LOL

Funny science pictures

I don’t even care if this is true or not. Some statistics are as good for the body as they are for the brain. Remember this and you’ll graduate from the school of life cum laude.

Har har!

TED Talks with Mythbusters’ Adam Savage

Adam Savage is one half of the insane genius behind the hit TV show Mythbusters and in this illuminating short TED Talk, he explains to us how some of history’s most profound discoveries have come from really simple, yet insightful methods: Eratosthenes’ calculation of the Earth’s circumference (200 BC) and Fizeau’s measurement of the speed of light (1849).

It’s a lesson in how you don’t have to have a PHD behind your name to conceive mighty concepts.

Amazing Science Video Source: “How simple ideas lead to scientific discoveries” – TED Talks. Uploaded by TED-Ed on YouTube channel https://youtu.be/F8UFGu2M2gM

View full lesson: http://ed.ted.com/lessons/how-simple-…

Goodness, Gracious Great Balls of Ice! The Story of Hail

Large hailstone picture

Source: A massive 2.4 inch aggregate hailstone (about 6cm): “Granizo” by nssl0001, National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) Collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Some things on our planet are so ridiculous, they could very well be the brainchildren of biblical authors. Frogs falling from the sky, crop circles, giant swirling hurricanes, belching volcanoes, sulphur-based life forms and Paris Hilton’s immense wealth (and equally as immense lack of IQ). And then there’s hail. The fact that the updrafts within a thunderstorm can be strong enough to hold grapefruit-sized hail in suspension is nothing but ridiculous and wholly impressive.

Great balls of ice!

How Hail is Made

Hail consists of balls of ice shockingly called “hailstones”. You may even say that hail is frozen rain, but it deserves a slightly more complex explanation than that…

Hail is made within powerful thunderstorms or cold fronts. Cold fronts tend to produce smaller hail that might inconvenience your dog’s plans to go do his business outside, thereby inconveniencing your plans to keep your house hygienic. The large hail responsible for denting cars, destroying crops and severely upsetting your herd of cows is typically associated with large thunderstorm systems that are well-endowed in the vertical and are sustained by powerful updrafts. These traits are especially exhibited by the “Big Daddy” of all small-scale tempests: supercell thunderstorms. These you will find skipping across “Tornado Alley” during the northern hemisphere’s summer months.

Severe thunderstorm across US Great Plains

Supercell thunderstorm with rotating mesocyclone (*swoon!*). The presence of such large frozen water particles within the cloud selectively reflects light towards the lower energy (green) end of the color spectrum, which is why thunderstorms that produce large hail can make the sky appear a ghostly green.

What cold fronts and thunderstorms have in common is that they are both low pressure systems that suck in air and expel it out their rear. Thunderstorms pull in great volumes of warm and moist air, which rise, cool and condense to form towering cloudy behemoths of cumulonimbus clouds. The air, once cooled, loses its momentum and proceeds to sink towards the ground. Together, these two channels of air comprise the updraft and downdraft zones that sustain a thunderstorm: its lungs if you’ll indulge a bit of poetic licence.

Now, as you should know, temperature decreases with height in the atmosphere. That’s why the tops of high mountains are frozen and it’s why you should always, ALWAYS go for a pee before sky diving. At a certain altitude within a thunderstorm, which can soar to as high as the interface between the troposphere and stratosphere at approximately 10km above sea level, the temperature reaches zero degrees Celsius – the temperature at which water freezes. Above this 0°C isotherm (an obnoxious way of saying “line of equal temperature”) all the water droplets in suspension are frozen.

The strong updrafts within a thunderstorm sweep water droplets above the 0°C isotherm where they freeze (consult the pretty diagram below). These pellets of ice then fall back down towards Earth in the downdraft zone, plummeting below the 0°C isotherm and defrosting into big globs of water. This is why thunderstorm rain gets you soaking wet faster than Channing Tatum’s dirty dancing in “Dirty Mike”.

hail-formation-diagram

Image Source: University of South Florida, scholarcommons.usf.edu

However, some of these falling frozen pellets of rain get caught up in the updraft zone again and are swept back up above the 0°C isotherm. Only, they’ve gained a layer of water, which they collected as condensation while chilling out below the 0°C isotherm. This additional layer of moisture freezes, forming a new layer of ice over the original ice pellet.

Large hailstone concentric circles Concentric layers of ice in a hailstone.

 Image Source: “Hagelkorn mit Anlagerungsschichten” by ERZ – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This process can repeat itself several times and each time, the hailstone will grow larger and larger and larger as it collects more and more layers of ice. The next time you’re in the middle of a raging supercell storm, run outside, collect a couple of decent-sized hailstones, run back to the tornado shelter, bolt the trapdoor, watch your dad arm wrestle said trapdoor with an F5 tornado, watch your dad lose, resolve to become a hardcore white vest-wearing, tornado chasing sexpot with a serious death wish. Oh! And remember those hailstones you collected? Cut them open to see those concentric circles of icy awesomeness.

When a hailstone finally gets too heavy for the thunderstorm’s updrafts to hold in suspension depends entirely on the strength of those updrafts. The stronger they are, the heavier the hailstones. This is why larger hailstones are associated with powerful thunderstorms, such as the Midwest super cells that are sustained by incredibly strong updraft zones.

And when hailstones get heavy, it’s time to run for cover.

Hailstorm damage

Sorry Boys… Size Really Does Matter

Farmers are more obsessed with size than that clutch of vacuous floozies and jockstraps in Jersey Shore. Considering their livelihood depends on it (and not their egos), this is easy to understand and empathise with. But, in no other aspect are they more obsessed with size than with hail. The happiness and health of their livestock and crops depend on it.

Some thunderstorms can create hailstones that are big enough to cave your head in. Even if you do have brains. The next time you’re at a party, scoop an ice cube out your rum and coke and toss it at your mate (preferably the one who’s hitting on your girlfriend). Listen to the dulcet sounds of squealing as it clobbers him in the noggin. Now imagine something easily ten times the size of that ice cube falling thousands of metres (or feet) from the heavens. Yup! Ouch.

Record_hailstone_Vivian,_SD

Ermagherd! Ferkerng HUGE herlsterne!

 Source: “Record hailstone Vivian, SD” by NWS Aberdeen, SD. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

On 23rd June 2010, the largest hailstone in recorded American meteorological history fell in Vivian, South Dakota (image above). This great ball of ice weighed in at 0.88 kg (1.93 lbs) and was a staggering (if it had hit you in the head) 20 cm (8 inches) in diameter.

That’s two inches longer than your average you-know-what, tee hee!

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Big Hail Thunderstorm

Hailstones are physical evidence of the incredible air circulations going on inside a thunderstorm. Can you imagine how strong air must be to prevent something that weighs almost a kilogram from succumbing to gravity? I don’t know about you, but that blows my mind in the most delicious way. And so we see that thunderstorms are about so much more than just thunder and lightning and the occasional airborne cow.

Today’s Sciencey LOL

Funny science picture

According to Newton’s First Law of Motion, an object will continue moving at the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by another/external force. What this means is when you slam the brakes on your 18-wheeler truck to avoid a family of rednecks crossing the road, your massive cargo of solid rock will continue to travel forward at speed.

Guess you should have strapped that in, mate! Or not… your picture has officially gone viral and has provided millions of science students with a perfect way to never forget what Newton’s First Law of Motion is.

Space Smells Like Raspberries (and Other Obscure Discoveries)

If you thought that space was a yawning airless chasm with the occasional star, planet, drifting hunk of rock or George Clooney, THINK AGAIN (even though you’re sort of right). In this amazing video, we get to meet 10 of the COOLEST things that have been discovered in space, including Mickey Mouse as it turns out.

From planets with narrow belts of totally habitable land to gas clouds that smell like raspberries, let’s journey through some pretty amazing phenomenon that would be more befitting of a Terry Pratchett novel.

Video Source: “10 Most Amazing Things Ever Found In Space” Uploaded by Top10Media on YouTube channel https://youtu.be/XUFpdwbfqqQ

Caught In The Act: Solar Flare Time Lapse

On July 19th 2012, NASA captured the full occurrence of a medium-sized solar flare. From a distance, the flare – albeit spectacular in itself – appears quite normal. But, upon closer inspection, the full and mesmerising nature of these looping conflagrations is revealed. Watch as this “moderately powerful” solar flare lets rip with a magnificent coronal mass ejection. Sounds positively filthy. This is followed shortly by gorgeous fiery “rain,” which traces graceful luminous pathways as it falls gently back towards the surface of the sun. These streams are composed of charged plasma, which is moving along the paths of strong magnetic fields. If none of this makes sense to you, it doesn’t matter, because this incredible footage is a visual feast all on its own!

Enjoy!

Video Source: Uploaded by USANewz via National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on YouTube channel https://youtu.be/gOuCikgKRIo