Can Dyslexia Be Cured by the Placebo Effect?

Myself and a reader going under the name of Tom, are having a discussion on the Dore Treatment. Tom is very much against Dore and has described it as a “con”. He has also accused me of promoting Dore for money and that I am lying about my treatment and subsequent improvement. You can read all this on iPhone Plays Guitar or via the Myomancy Forum.

One of the interesting points that has arisen out of this discussion is the idea that any improvement in my dyslexia has been caused by the placebo effect.

The placebo effect is defined as “…occur[ing] when a patient’s symptoms are altered in some way (i.e., alleviated or exacerbated) by an otherwise inert treatment, due to the individual expecting or believing that it will work. “. The two important elements are that the patient receives a totally inert treatment and that the patient’s symptoms really change.

The placebo effect is normally found in relation to physical medical problems ranging from common colds to cancer. Alternative medical treatments such as homeopathy and faith healing rely on the placebo effect for most of their benefits. It is also common practice in drug trials to give half the patients the real drug to be tested and the other half a sugar pill placebo. It is then possible to compare the results from the real drug to the placebo and work out how much more effective the real drug is. These drug trails regularly show 20%-30% of people on the placebo show an improvement of symptoms. In some cases, such as drugs designed to control pain, up to 75% of people on the placebo reported less pain. The placebo effect is very real and may be far more important to how effective drugs are than the big pharmaceutical companies would like you to know.

It is important to note that there is no evidence that the placebo effect actually cures anything. They can make you feel better by reducing pain or other symptoms and this can have a knock-on effect. A patient with less pain may be more positive and more active and this can help the bodies natural healing process. Another vital aspect of the placebo effect is that it wears off. A placebo only works because the patient believes it is going to work. After they have been taking a placebo for sometime the patient will begin to question why their illness hasn’t been cured. Once this loss of faith occurs the placebo loses its symptom reducing effects.

To apply this to dyslexia we have to identify the ‘disease’ and the ‘symptoms’. If the Dore Treatment is a placebo, the symptoms should reduces in intensity for a while but then return because the underlying problem or ‘disease’ still remains. Most dyslexia experts believe that dyslexia, the ‘disease’, is caused by a fundamental difference in the brain that cannot be changed. The ‘symptoms’ of this disease are reading problems, poor spelling, poor handwriting and poor short-term memory. Because the ‘disease’ is an unchangeable flaw, these symptoms can only be ameliorated. If a placebo works on dyslexia then we would expect one or more of those symptoms to show improvement and then return to its previous levels once the effect is lost.

A patient receiving a dyslexia treatment placebo might well do better in a spelling test than before because they believe they are being cured. This success would boast their confidence, helping them to learn new words and to make further progress in the next test. But if dyslexia is a lifelong condition that can only be ameliorated then this cycle of progress can only continue until the limits on the patient’s ability, placed on them by the underlying ‘disease’, are reached. Once this limit is reached the patient would lose faith in the placebo, the placebo effect would stop working, levels of confidence would drop and most of the improvements seen would disappear.

This does not appear to be the case. My own, other people’s anecdotal evidence, and research by Dore shows that the improvements gained whilst on the treatment remain and further improvements are seen after the treatment has stopped. Though the treatment has certainly not worked for some, no one has reported seeing significant improvements and then losing them once treatment stops.

This persistence of improvement is the clear sign that the Dore treatment is not working through a placebo effect but is making a permanent change in the brain.

None of this proves the underlying hypothesis of the Dore treatment that dyslexia is caused by an under-developed cerebellum or that the Dore treatment does anything but boast the patient’s confidence. But because the effects of the treatment are permanent it cannot be described as a placebo effect.

49 Comments

  • miss ellie says:

    The problem is Duck I never stopped learning through out my career I finished a NVQ level 4 management course a day before I started my Honours Degree and finished it in a year where many others took 2.
    I have never been out of training in the 20 odd years I have been nursing. But the degree was my stumbling block because it was at level 3 and my dyslexia could not cope with that level.
    I have the expertise and knowledge base to sail through that degree but when it came to writing it down in a level 3 format I did not have a clue. I had to work twice as hard as any other within my set to try and get it complete and if you realise that there were 8 people who started and only one finished.
    But I was within my comfort zone with the course I have always had confidence and never failed one.
    It wasn’t trying something I had not done for years it was the dyslexia which in this case held me back. I cannot fight this one Duck and think oh if I try hard enough I will over come it.
    I too have travelled on my own worked in South Africa for 2 years and all over the UK within nursing. I had the world at my feet there was no reason to think that I would not get what I wanted out of life. Rode a bike to work in several of my jobs but I wasn’t safe I was alright if I could stop and touch the floor with my foot before I fell off!!!
    I have worked with my difficulties all my life and never let it rule my life till now. The degree is the one I can say in all honesty took the biscuit.
    I will do Dore as to me it is the only natural course for me to get rid finally of all those difficulties that have afflicted me all my life.
    Well I will once I have sorted all the neurological problems which came along with the dyslexia, all those difficulties I had always coped with suddenly have increased in severity, so for me I am back to my childhood state. Ellie XXX

  • FrazzleDazzle says:

    Tom, go ahead and argue with the brain surgeons.

  • myomancy says:

    Re: Brain Plasticity

    Plasticity is highest in the very young and lowest in the very old.

    Up to the age of three or four the brain is changing very rapidly as key areas like language develop. If a child is deprived of normal stimulation at that age and those areas do not develop then there is a real struggle to gain those skills even just a few years later. [ See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genie_%28feral_child%29 for an extreme case ].

    Beyond that point the ability of the brain to change and adapt only gradually decreases. There is no magical cut off point when your brain ‘sets’ into its adult form.

    This is why we can learn things as adult. When you learn anything, from someone’s name to a new language, your brain is changing and displaying plasticity.

    Obviously various factors effect plasticity. The “Use it or lose it” theory seems true. So those who have life long habits of learning seem to be the ones best able to recover from strokes and other brain injuries.

    Physical health is a factor. Fit, healthy adults recover from brain injury better than fat, unhealthy adults.

    The size and nature of what is being learned is the most critical factor. Learning new things, like a foreign language is easy compared to relearning to speak after a stroke.

    Have a look at these two cases of adults displaying amazing brain plasticity.

    http://www.myomancy.com/2004/07/remembering_to_

    http://www.myomancy.com/2006/03/the_incredible_

  • Brainduck says:

    Miss Ellie – you have my sympathy with the nursing degree, Mum’s been through similar & it was proper difficult for her to have to go back to academic learning 30+ years after she trained in a very different time.

    The thing is though – at 15, I was unable to tie my shoelaces or tell the time, didn’t speak much, & was not really coping with life. At 18, I ran my first marathon, went to Malaysia & New Zealand alone, got straight As & a place at uni, & was responsible for looking after profoundly disabled children. If I’d been doing some sort of programme at the time, I’ve no doubt at all that my parents would have put my improvements down to whatever I was doing. I wasn’t though, & IMO it was mostly a change of environment & teaching styles, having to take a year mostly off school & away from pressures there, being able to use a computer for written work, and being allowed to do the things I was good at instead of focusing on what I couldn’t do. I’m doing lots of things now that Drs, EdPsychs etc said I wouldn’t be able to do – my parents were told I’d not ride a bike, and a couple of years ago I came 3rd in an Ironman triathlon (with 112 mile bike leg) & have worked in a bicycle shop.

    Sorry, I’m sounding like a right show-off now, & I don’t mean to. But I know lots of people with SpLD diagnoses who have been successful in their field – I know a dyspraxic & dyslexic medical doctor, a couple of dyspraxic physicists, a Vicar, a research mathematician, several engineers, an architect, all sorts of things, and it worries me that there is an expectation that without DORE then people with SpLDs can’t be successful & happy. Children are very influenced by expectations.

    Children do have much greater neural plasticity than adults – they will recover much more quickly from brain injury, but conversely deprivation of stimuli is much more damaging to their development. There’s a certain time period where just covering a child’s eye will leave them blind, as the brain isn’t getting input from that eye so will re-assign those cells to do something else. However, humans are clever things, and adults can also recover after brain injury, though more slowly. Some of it is just learning how to do things a different way, but some is genuine changes in how the brain works. There was a cool study a few years ago about enlarged hippocampi in London taxi drivers, probably because they need good spatial skills (see here: http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/doc_WTX032958.html).

What are your personal experiences with ADD / ADHD, autism or dyslexia?