The Institute of Medicine today awarded the 2010 Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health to two scientists — Charles P. O'Brien, MD, PhD, the Kenneth Appel Professor of Psychiatry and vice chair of psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine; and Eric J. Nestler, MD, PhD, the Nash Family Professor of Neuroscience, chair of the department of neuroscience, and director of the Friedman Brain Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine — for their complementary achievements in addiction science.  The Sarnat Prize, consisting of a medal and $20,000, recognizes the researchers' leading roles in elucidating the biological mechanics of addiction, improving the quality of care offered by treatment programs, and ultimately reducing the stigma associated with the condition.  The prize was presented to O'Brien and Nestler at IOM's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Addiction was not viewed as a medical disorder when O'Brien began his career in the 1970s.  His discoveries have been fundamental in proving that drugs affect how the brain works and in developing pharmaceutical and behavioral therapies for addiction.  His laboratory provided the first evidence that symptoms of addiction result from reflexive memories that persist even after a person stops using a drug.  His research showed that drug use over time conditions automatic responses and that re-exposure to drug-associated cues activates drug urges; this discovery has led to behavioral therapies that aim to prevent relapses by diminishing conditioned reactions.  The pharmaceutical therapy naltrexone also is now used to treat many people with alcoholism because of O'Brien's persistence in testing it for this purpose despite skepticism from many in the research community that alcoholism could be treated pharmaceutically.  He led the team that first demonstrated the effectiveness of outpatient detoxification for alcoholics and paved the way for outpatient treatment to become the norm rather than confining patients in hospitals or clinics.  O'Brien and Penn colleague Tom McLellan developed the Addiction Severity Index, used worldwide to determine the extent of patients' problems and tailor appropriate treatment approaches.

Dr. O’Brien was elected to the Institute of Medicine in 1991.

For more information, please see the Institute of Medicine’s Sarnat Prize press release.


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