The BBC reports on a strange placebo effect in the world of sports that even the scientist investigating it can't explain.
The Pico Simón Bolívar is one of the highest mountains in Colombia. Near the top, there is only half as much oxygen as at sea level, a dizzying 5,500m (18,000 feet) below. The air up there makes it hard to walk and causes fatigue and headaches, so the body tries to adapt: breathing rate increases, the heart beats faster and blood vessels expand to get more oxygen to tissues.
As you might expect, giving someone an oxygen tank to breathe from will reverse these changes. They’ll quickly feel less tired and their head will stop pounding as their heart rate and breathing return to normal. What you wouldn’t expect is that you can achieve exactly the same thing if the oxygen tank is a fake – it’s empty.
Fabrizio Benedetti is the scientist behind these experiments. Based in Italy at the University of Turin, he has given people placebo oxygen on mountains in Colombia, Alaska and his laboratory in the Alps and observed the same thing –fake oxygen tanks can mimic the effects of the real thing.
The effect only works if an actual oxygen tank is given to the subject a few times first, before it’s switched for a sham one without them knowing. That way, their bodies are expecting to receive an oxygen hit. Remarkably, although the tank is now empty, it can still boost physical performance on a lab-based high altitude walking exercise. The question is – how?
“This is the one-billion [dollar] question,” says Benedetti. “There is no oxygen in the blood, there is no oxygen in the body, but you can get the very same effect as real oxygen. The real answer is we don’t know.”
There's much more at the link, including speculation as to the cause of this phenomenon - but that's all it is. At present, there's no solid evidence or proof of what's going on.
I find this fascinating. Could this sort of "placebo effect" be triggered during a sporting event, to provide a boost equal to a performance-enhancing drug, but without the illegality? Could it be used in the context of military operations, to give troops in combat a boost to their performance that lasts just long enough to triumph over the enemy? The possibilities are endless.