Do "placebo responders" exist?

Contemp Clin Trials. 2008 Jul;29(4):587-95. doi: 10.1016/j.cct.2008.02.002. Epub 2008 Feb 23.


The placebo effect has been the subject of much controversy. For a scientific investigation of placebo effects to advance it is important to establish whether a placebo response in any particular illness is reliable - i.e., if there is a response to a single placebo administration there will also be a placebo response to the repeated administration of a similar placebo in similar conditions. A positive answer would allow more sophisticated clinical trial designs and more precise basic research experiments on the placebo effect. This article reviews experiments that used multiple administrations of placebo to answer the question "do reliable placebo responders exist?" This paper also examines the evidence for the existence of a consistent placebo responder, i.e. a person who responds to placebo in one situation will respond in another condition or using a different type of placebo ritual. Much of the existing evidence for these two questions was performed before 1967. This early evidence is contradictory, methodologically weak and is sufficiently old to be considered medical history. Since 1969, at least eight experiments exposed asthma patients to multiple administrations of placebo given with deceptive suggestions that the "treatment" was an active medication. While the results of this research are not unequivocal, and may not be equivalent to non-deceptive conditions, this line of inquiry suggests that if a reliable and consistent placebo response exists it could be detected within this population. Finally, this paper proposes one model to rigorously investigate the stability of placebo responses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Asthma / prevention & control
  • Clinical Trials as Topic*
  • Humans
  • Placebo Effect*
  • Research Design*