A group of researchers has used coffee to suggest that using placebos to treat drug addiction may be effective, even when the subjects are fully aware that they are getting placebos.
Research published earlier this year in the journal of the British Association for Psychopharmacology showed that “heavy” coffee drinkers — more than three cups per day — reported less intense withdrawal symptoms when given decaffeinated coffee than those who were given water.
Importantly, the less severe symptoms were reported by people who knew they were being served decaf, as well as by those who were deceived into thinking they were drinking caffeinated coffee.
The study was focused on the concept of “open-label” placebo delivery. In clinical applications when addressing drug addiction, the use of placebos is considered unethical if users are not made aware they are receiving a placebo, the researchers stated.
Though the majority of the 61 heavy coffee drinkers in the study said they expected that decaf coffee would not reduce the severity of their symptoms, their responses following the decaf delivery showed a different result.
“It appears as if open-label placebo caffeine (i.e. decaf) can reduce caffeine withdrawal symptoms, even when people do not hold a conscious expectancy it will do so,” the research team, led by Llewellyn Mills of the University of Sydney (NSW, Australia), wrote. “There may be ways to integrate open-label placebo procedures into clinical interventions for drug dependence without violating informed consent.”
According to the research team, the results may be related to coffee drinkers’ years of experience drinking coffee and the positive psychological associations they draw from external forces such as brewed coffee aroma or warm mugs. A 2018 study found that just the smell of brewed coffee improved people’s cognitive ability and math scores.
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