The fix

June 18, 2014 8:45 AM

Kirby Messinger

World-renowned addiction expert and Tulane University alumnus Dr. Charles O’Brien has spent his life’s work bringing hope to those suffering from addiction. 

Dr. Charles O'Brien

Pet scans can reveal the powerful effects of addiction on a patient’s brain, says Dr. Charles O’Brien. (Photo by Steve Boyle)

Widely viewed as one of the most respected and innovative researchers in the world, O’Brien has conducted countless research projects and dozens of clinical trials and authored over 600 papers. His work has increased understanding of the clinical aspects of addictions and the neurobiology of relapse. 

A New Orleans native, O’Brien jokes that he is saturated with Tulane degrees — an undergraduate degree, medical degree, two graduate degrees and a fellowship in psychiatry. 

The recipient of numerous awards, he recently added the Tulane Medical Alumni Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award to his impressive list of credentials. O’Brien celebrated his 50th reunion from Tulane University School of Medicine and is still working to help those suffering from addition. 

O’Brien became interested in the study of addiction following the Vietnam War. He found that many of his patients were addicted to the powerful drug heroin.  

O’Brien began to study how the brain reacts to the influence of various substances including alcohol, opioids and cocaine. He learned that to understand the disease you have to understand the brain and how it reacts to stimulants. 

“It’s important to treat the brain in addition to the sociological problems,” says O’Brien. That’s why he says expensive rehabilitation centers or group therapies are not a cure-all. “Unfortunately, you end up charging people a lot of money for things that just don’t work.” 

One of his major achievements was finding that naltrexone, originally developed to treat heroin addiction, was effective in treating alcoholism. Approved by the FDA, naltrexone has now become one of the most popular medication used to treat alcoholism. 

Currently, he is conducting trials at the University of Pennsylvania on new medication to treat cocaine addiction. 

For more on Dr. Charles O’Brien, see the spring issue of Tulane Medicine magazine. 

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000