Imagine if we could somehow trigger the brain to release endorphins, dopamine and other neurotransmitters to help relieve pain, depression and other health problems. It turns out that scientists and health care providers have already started doing this.

It’s called the “placebo effect.”

In a July 2 New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) Perspectives piece, Ted Kaptchuk at Harvard Medical School (a grantee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) and Franklin G. Miller of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health, describe the placebo effect as the demonstrated relief of symptoms that results from the “therapeutic encounter”—a patient’s interactions with a health care provider and all the rituals, symbols, hopes and expectations surrounding his or her treatment experience.

Historically, the placebo was thought of as just a sugar pill, a control variable used in research studies. But over the last 15 years, a growing body of research has shown us there’s more to it. For example, in one study of patients with irritable bowel syndrome, patients experienced symptom relief when given a placebo, an effect that was magnified when coupled with positive interactions with a health care provider. Another study has shown that seeing a medication being administered increases the effectiveness of the medication. Other studies have also demonstrated how trust and the expectation of being helped can trigger our brain’s ability to help us heal.

In a recent post in the Health Care Blog, Brian Quinn of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, raises the question: Given what we know about these placebo effects, why don’t more health care providers apply them in practice? Quinn points out that while placebos can’t cure, there is huge unrealized potential here. He calls for more investment in studies that can help lead to much-needed clinical guidelines.

Imagine the possibilities if we do. Now that’s using our brains.