Two prominent addiction scientists—Dr. Eric J. Nestler and Dr. Charles P. O'Brien—received the 2010 Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health. The Institute of Medicine presented the prize to Drs. Nestler and O'Brien at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in October. Both researchers are NIDA grantees.
Dr. Nestler, chair of the department of neuroscience and director of the Friedman Brain Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, has been instrumental in revealing how drugs affect the brain at the molecular level. His laboratory has identified many proteins and genes involved in drugs' effects on the brain's reward regions and demonstrated how drugs rewire the brain's normal reward responses. Dr. Nestler recognized that the brain's reward pathways also play an important role in stress-related disorders such as depression. He also developed a novel mouse model for depression, which helped establish that long-lasting behavioral abnormalities caused by stress can be reversed by treatment with antidepressants.
Dr. O'Brien, vice chair of psychiatry and director of the Charles O'Brien Center for Addiction Treatment at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, has made many important discoveries and contributions over the past 30 years that have become the standard of care in addiction treatment. These include evidence that symptoms of addiction result from reflexive memories that persist even after a person stops using a drug, that drug use over time conditions automatic responses, and that re-exposure to drug-associated cues activates drug urges. The latter discovery has led to behavioral therapies designed to prevent relapse by diminishing conditioned reactions. Dr. O'Brien led the team that first demonstrated the effectiveness of outpatient detoxification for alcoholics and paved the way for outpatient treatment to become the norm; he also led pivotal research pioneering the use of naltrexone as a treatment for alcohol dependence. He and colleague Dr. A. Thomas McLellan developed the Addiction Severity Index, used worldwide to determine the extent of patients' problems and tailor appropriate treatment approaches.
The Sarnat Prize, consisting of a medal and $20,000, is awarded to individuals, groups, or organizations that have demonstrated outstanding achievement in improving mental health.