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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2011 Jun 27;366(1572):1889-95. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2010.0384.

The placebo response in clinical trials: more questions than answers.

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Department of Internal Medicine VI: Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy, University Hospital, Tübingen, Germany.


Meta-analyses and re-analyses of trial data have not been able to answer some of the essential questions that would allow prediction of placebo responses in clinical trials. We will confront these questions with current empirical evidence. The most important question asks whether the placebo response rates in the drug arm and in the placebo arm are equal. This 'additive model' is a general assumption in almost all placebo-controlled drug trials but has rarely been tested. Secondly, we would like to address whether the placebo response is a function of the likelihood of receiving drug/placebo. Evidence suggests that the number of study arms in a trial may determine the size of the placebo and the drug response. Thirdly, we ask what the size of the placebo response is in 'comparator' studies with a direct comparison of a (novel) drug against another drug. Meta-analytic and experimental evidence suggests that comparator studies may produce higher placebo response rates when compared with placebo-controlled trials. Finally, we address the placebo response rate outside the laboratory and outside of trials in clinical routine. This question poses a serious challenge whether the drug response in trials can be taken as evidence of drug effects in clinical routine.

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