Mary Wakefield: Pop a pill and you feel so much better – regardless of what's in it

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If there's one group of fat cats we all assume are still purring away through these uncertain times, it's big pharmaceutical companies. Bankers may be despised, MPs still reeling from duck-house-gate, but surely big pharma is sitting pretty, turning our pain into gain in their usual charming way.

Well, there have been alarming signs this week that even the pharma giants are in a stew. Wired magazine and others have reported that behind the ballsy façade at GlaxoSmithKline, there's uncertainty and fear: not because of the recession but because of the terrifying, growing power of the placebo.

Before they can be sold in shops, all drugs have to show they work better than a placebo (a sugar pill or some other fake medicine). But mysteriously – creepily even – placebos have now begun to outperform real pills. Did you think perhaps that Prozac was undisputed king of the happy pills, packed with potent chemicals? Think again. Its sugary placebo twin has proved itself not just as good, but sometimes even better at cheering people up. It's the same story with Valium and even with the drugs used to treat Parkinson's: placebos do just as well.

It's not the placebo effect that's new – we've known about that since the Second World War. Even I've got my own pet story about the healing power of belief. One day an anaesthetist friend of mine was called in to administer an anaesthetic to an old lady who was due to have heart surgery. He talked to the lady first, explaining gently how she'd fall slowly asleep under the influence of the gas, and so she did. Lady conked out; surgeon cracked open her ribs, but when my friend came to wake her up again he discovered that the gas had never been turned on. The lady had had open-heart surgery with no anaesthetic – but because she assumed she'd be OK she was.

So we all know that the mind works in mysterious ways, dispensing its own natural drugs when it sees fit, but what no one imagined was that the placebo effect would get stronger over time. It's plain weird. And it raises the question: if the placebo effect is getting ever more powerful, how do we know why any of our favourite medicines work? Is it the active ingredients, or are Merck and the gang just making us pay for our own drugs?

You can tell how worried big pharma are by the way they've begun to collaborate. A few months ago, all the big boys – Merck, Lilly, Pfizer, GSK, Johnson and Johnson – decided to launch a joint investigation into the placebo effect. And the results so far are riveting. Branded sugar pills, stamped with a reputable company's logo, turn out to be much better than plain ones at alleviating pain. Yellow, sunshine-coloured sugar pills are the best at making us happy; red ones pep everybody up and blue ones calm us down, except in Italy where blue is the colour of the national football team.

So what's the reason why placebo power is getting stronger? It's still a mystery. But the theory I like best is that big pharma have shafted themselves. The lesson of placebos is that if you're really convinced that something will cure you, then your head doctor – that self-fulfilling prophet – will join in and make it happen. Healing is believing.

Over the past few decades pharmaceutical superpowers have put so much money into adverts and campaigns that we all now believe that all pills will cure us – ones with active ingredients and ones without. It's the placebo paradox: the more successful the marketing, the fewer new drugs can make it pass the placebo test and out into the market.

But after the Schadenfreude subsides, here's a more sensible thought. All placebos perform better if dispensed by a caring and considerate doctor. It's not just that it's nice for patients to be treated well; the lesson of growing placebo power is that it's how a pill is prescribed, just as much as what's in it, that matters.

Turing deserved a more fitting tribute

I signed the petition asking the Government to apologise for Alan Turing who was so shabbily treated by the country he helped to save, so why did Gordon Brown's apology make me feel so queasy? Perhaps it was because he kept referring to Turing as "Alan" in a over-familiar way, as if they'd been great mates back in 1951 when Gordon was three. Perhaps it was because he seemed to imply that Turing's homosexuality was his most significant achievement, yakking on about "Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia". But Turing might also have liked to be known as the inventor of modern computer science. Apple Mac chose its name and logo as an oblique tribute to Turing. (He killed himself with a cyanide-laced apple.) Gordon might at least have mentioned it.

Unarmed and not so dangerous after all

So long then, Sarah Palin, above. She made some people cross; others she drove wild with rampant redneck lust.

She made me laugh a lot, but the vice-presidential candidate was – even more than most politicians – an invented character and now the game is up. Her nearly son-in-law, Levi Johnson, told the October issue of Vanity Fair that far from being a moose-hunting, home-baking mama, Palin didn't know the butt from the barrel of a shotgun, and could care less about the kids.

"Bristol [his former fiancée] was the mom of the house," says traitorous Levi. "Sarah was never there." Worse: "I've never seen Sarah touch a fishing pole. She had a gun in her bedroom, and one day she asked me to show her how to shoot it." This week Sarah Palin's one good joke ("What's the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick") made it into the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and, like the Cheshire cat, I imagine that's all she'll leave behind: a lipstick grin on the ghostly muzzle of a fading pit bull.

Duchess and the needy of Deptford High Street

Camilla (once Parker Bowles – what is her surname now?) has been out and about doing good works in south-east London, left. Most papers printed pics of her smiley, philanthropic face, but no one mentioned the remarkable charity she chose to visit. The 999 Club doesn't limit itself to one needy group, but gives any help to anyone who asks for it. From its shop on Deptford High Street it offers food to the hungry, chats to the lonely; its members look after the play-starved toddlers of teenage mums, and let mad old ladies stay all day, chatting to the walls. For the middle class and mostly need-free, they offer a renewed faith in humanity. www.999club.org

Search me...

Google reports a 100 per cent rise in searches for "How to get pregnant" in 2009. Does this mean that more girls have less clue about what makes babies, or that British women are having 100 per cent more trouble conceiving? Either way, it's an ominous state of affairs.

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