Inside "60 Minutes" placebo story

Some new scientific research is causing quite a stir in the medical community.

The fight is over antidepressants, and whether they work any better than a simple placebo.

In an report airing this Sunday, "60 Minutes" correspondent Lesley Stahl spoke to the psychologist behind the study, Irving Kirsch, associate director of the Placebo Studies Program at Harvard Medical School.

Preview: Treating Depression

He says that his research challenges the very effectiveness of antidepressants. Kirsch says the difference between the effect of a placebo and the effect of an antidepressant is minimal for most people.

In her interview with Kirsch, Stahl asks, "You're saying if (patients taking antidepressants) took a sugar pill, they'd have the same effect?"

Kirsch replied, "They'd have almost as large an effect, and whatever difference it would be, would be clinically insignificant."

Stahl presses, "But people are getting better taking antidepressants, I know them. We all know them."

"People get better when they take the drug, but it's not the chemical ingredients of the drugs that are making them better," Kirsch said. "It's largely the placebo effect."

Kirsch's specialty has been the study of the placebo effect -- the taking of a dummy pill without any medication in it, that creates an expectation of healing that is so powerful, symptoms are actually alleviated.

In addition to an interview with Kirsch, Stahl interviewed doctors who don't agree with Kirsch's study.

On "CBS This Morning," Friday Stahl called the report "explosive."

She said, "Basically (this report) is saying that -- except for those very severely depressed, because everybody says that these antidepressants do work if you're -- if it's a depression that you just can't get over. But if you're moderately depressed or mildly depressed, a sugar pill would be just as good."

"It's the placebo effect," Stahl continued. "And part of our story involves how the mind is so powerful over the body that the placebo effect shows up even if you have knee surgery, with osteoporosis, if you have Parkinson's disease. All these diseases that somehow involve the mind and it's not just in the mind. A sugar pill can actually change your blood pressure, they've monitored the brain, it can change the brain chemistry and the doctor giving you the pill, if it's a sugar pill, just telling you he cares and, 'Yes, I know you're sick and here's something to help you, that doctor is part of the placebo effect.'"

So are doctors prescribing sugar pills?

Stahl said she asked that question throughout her reporting, but learned it's not an ethical practice.

"There are side effects with antidepressants," she said. "It's not ethical. But you know, in my head, to give a pill that is as good as a placebo with side effects isn't ethical either. So I think why not give a sugar pill. But they don't do it, they won't do it."

For more with Stahl on her upcoming report, including what it means for people taking antidepressants and the companies that make these prescription drugs, watch the video in the player above.

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