Dementia is awful. Those who suffer from it cannot currently be cured, but how can we help them? One research team thinks Reiki, which seems to be a Japanese form therapy massage plus placebo effect, might help. NYT has the deets for the skeptical.

Most studies of reiki have obvious flaws: the numbers of patients are too low, or the experiment isn’t randomized or blinded — meaning that patients seek reiki out (and thus are more likely to believe it’s beneficial) and know what they’re getting. The aides at Home Care Partners will fill out surveys reporting changes they observe in their clients receiving reiki, but without controls that, too, is a subjective measure.

One of the few rigorous, controlled, randomized and blinded studies — the gold standard in Western medicine — was Dr. Assefi’s own, involving 100 middle-aged fibromyalgia patients in Seattle. Whether they were randomly assigned to standard hands-on treatment by a reiki master, to “distant” reiki in which the master focused “healing intention” from two feet away, or to fake reiki from an untrained actor who mimicked the positions, the results were the same: no significant improvement of symptoms after eight weeks of twice-weekly treatments.

Honestly, I am beginning to question the “gold standard in Western medicine” because of its stance towards the placebo effect. In a double-blind, controlled, randomized study, placebo effect is minimized or eliminated. But what are we supposed to do when evidence shows that a practice that relies on the placebo effect, like Reiki, helps people if they believe it is helping. That is, if there is a way to test that removes confirmation bias from the researcher, but not the patient, then isn’t the placebo effect part of a good cure?