The Economist discusses a recent study looking at giving athletes a placebo that they believed was going to assist them in there performance. Here is an excerpt:

In their new experiment, published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience, he and his colleagues simulated a sporting competition by pitting four teams of ten athletic young men against each other in a pain-endurance test. With a tourniquet strapped around one forearm, these men had to squeeze a hand-spring exerciser repeatedly until pain forced them to stop. Their scores, measured by the time they managed to keep going, were averaged over the whole team.

One of the teams received a morphine injection just before training sessions held two weeks and one week before the contest, and an injection of saline solution on the big day, along with the suggestion that it was morphine. Another received the same regime, but the saline was combined with naloxone, an opiate-blocking drug. The remaining teams received either no treatment at all, or the placebo on competition day alone.

Members of the team that received morphine followed by a placebo were able to endure significantly more pain during the competition than any of their rivals. In particular, those injected with naloxone did no better than the other two control groups. This finding supports the theory that placebos reduce pain by encouraging the brain to produce more natural opiates than usual.

Although hand-spring squeezing is not yet an Olympic sport, it is a good enough surrogate to suggest that these effects might be shown in real competitions, too. So the question is, how useful would Dr Benedetti’s observations be, should they be taken up by an unscrupulous but legalistic coach?

That depends how cynical athletes really are. The placebo effect depends on what the recipient believes is happening, so he would have to think he was cheating, even though, strictly, he wasn’t. Also, if the practice became widespread, it would be hard to maintain the fiction that the injection on competition day contained the drug. On the other hand, as Dr Benedetti observes, doctors have been getting away with giving placebos for millennia, and their patients still fall for it. Perhaps if it were sold to athletes as a form of homeopathy, they would not ask too many awkward questions.