Can an app mimic the effect of medication? New crowdfunding campaign seeks answers

It’s pretty much the worst news a biotech company can get when they’re told that a placebo was more effective than their drug. But one company that’s kicked off a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo wants to change how we think of placebos. Serial entrepreneur  Daniel Jacobs developed a virtual sugar pill — an app of […]

It’s pretty much the worst news a biotech company can get when they’re told that a placebo was more effective than their drug. But one company that’s kicked off a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo wants to change how we think of placebos. Serial entrepreneur  Daniel Jacobs developed a virtual sugar pill — an app of inspiring image-laden videos — with the idea that it can be used to help people accomplish their goals from happiness to weight management if viewed just a couple of minutes daily.

PlaceboEffect is conducting a study with University of California San Diego. According to the website, participants take one “placebo” each day for 30 days. Each day, people rate their happiness and choose an achievable goal for feeling happier in the next 24 hours. It also lets users track and share their progress.

The idea is that a “prescription” of viewing these images over a one-month period could actually replace certain medications. If it works, it could have implications for behavioral health.

It follows an Indiegogo campaign the company did last year. About 1,000 participated in a pilot study using the app in March, according to the website. About 40 percent said the app made them happier after using it 15 times within 30 days, according to Jacobs.

PlaceboEffect isn’t a nonprofit, so it’s a bit odd for Jacobs to claim in its video that the company doesn’t have views. Of course it has views. It thinks its product will make people happy and it wants to sell it.

A cursory search on ClinicalTrials.gov shows that the placebo effect is part of roughly 83 studies in various stages. Although the placebo effect has been the subject of a lot of discussion about what causes it and why it can be more effective in some cases than a drug, it’s also the subject of a lot of disagreement. Many would be skeptical that something like what PlaceboEffect is selling is effective if people know that they’re taking a placebo.They’d be more likely to consider it a mood enhancer.

Maybe that’s why puppy and cat videos generate millions of views.