A tribute to Dr. Olivier Ameisen

We produce below the obituary of Dr. Olivier Ameisen from the French newspaper, Le Monde:


Olivier Ameisen, the apostle of Baclofen, is dead

Le Monde.fr | 19/07/2013 at 20:58 • Updated 19/07/2013 at 21:30 | By Sandrine Blanchard, Sandrine Cabut and Catherine Vincent

Professor of Cardiology Olivier Ameisen.

Professor Olivier Ameisen, cardiologist, brother of Professor Jean-Claude Ameisen, the current president of the French National Ethics Committee, died on July 18 in Paris of a myocardial infarction. He had just turned 60. 

For thousands of alcoholics, he will be the one that allowed them to end their “craving”; the irrepressible need for alcohol. His crusade was for Baclofen: himself a doctor who became addicted to alcohol, he found in an old drug a new path to freedom from addiction, and fought for years to have his discovery accepted.

As a teenager Ameisen was a brilliant pianist, who learned to play by ear. He first imagined a career as a musician. But his parents told him he would have to pass his baccalaureate first. He passed by age 15, but by then it was too late for a career as a pianist. He went to see Arthur Rubinstein for advice, who suggested that he become a conductor and composer. But Amiesen did not want half measures. So he chose medicine. 


“He loved the clinic and research, but I think he always regretted not having a career in music. It was really what he lived for,” said Jean-Claude Ameisen, his older brother by a year and a half. In adolescence, the two brothers were inseparable. They studied medicine together preparing exams and taking their internships side by side. It was only when Olivier departed for the prestigious Cornell University in New York in 1983 that they were separated. The young man quickly becomes a prominent cardiologist, but it did not take long for his unrelenting anxiety to sink him into alcoholism. As in everything he did, he went all the way. 

He was hospitalized for his alcoholism numerous times, where he was treated by the best specialists in the field. Nothing worked. His career was stopped; he went in and out of detox and from accident to accident. “I really felt like he would never make it,” recalls his brother. Until 2001, when a friend gave him an article from the New York Times to read describing the amazing effect of Baclofen, a drug marketed since the 1970s to relieve muscle spasms, in a cocaine addict. For Ameisen, it was the moment. 

He dove into the scientific literature, interviewed experts and then he set off. In 2004, he began treating himself with increasing doses of Baclofen. He found himself cured of his addiction, becoming, he said, “indifferent to alcohol.” Which was an unheard of result. He recovered his cognitive faculties and found a serenity that he had never known. As a good scientist, he published his first case in late 2004 in a specialized journal on alcoholism. But it was his best-selling book, The Last Glass (Ed. Denoël, 2008), which finally allowed him to be widely heard.

Baclofen had no official authorization for the treatment of addiction to alcohol, but eloquent witnesses multiplied, and sales soared. While part of the medical community remained doubtful, Ameisen received prestigious support. Professor Jean Dausset, Nobel Prize winner in Medicine in 1980, pronounced that Ameisen had discovered “the treatment of addiction.”

Since then, Baclofen became the great business of his life. The cardiologist, who by necessity became an alcohologist, spent his days and nights tirelessly and stubbornly in a battle for the recognition of his treatment. Sending messages around the world, responding to hundreds of anonymous people who turned to him, taking issue with the physicians who would not apply his “method”, and criticizing the “reluctance” of France. He wanted training methods to be created, and he despaired the administrative slowness of the French faculty.


“Enthusiastic, passionate and extremely endearing, Ameisen suffered greatly from the refusal of addiction specialists to recognize this therapy as an opportunity to help,” commented Professor Didier Sicard, who has publicly supported and, on June 3, chaired a symposium supporting Baclofen treatment. The former president of the National Ethics Committee says that it is “a very important scientific discovery that goes beyond alcohol and will justify further work.”

The discovery was not well received, however, among other reasons, because it carried an unacceptable message. “With Baclofen you no longer have to be a prisoner of alcohol, which is to say you can win without necessarily being abstinent. In the world of alcohol treatment this was a blasphemy.”

“Olivier Ameisen did not expect such enormous resistance from the medical community,” said the analyst Caroline Eliacheff, who became friends with him on the release of his book. Describing him as “a genius who became a benefactor of mankind”, she also describes his constitutional anxiety, calling it “physically palpable.”

It makes no sense, but this impatient, tortured man who had no children himself could not successfully follow through on the incredibly promising pathway he had himself opened. In recent months, however, he did have something to celebrate. Clinical trials have been initiated in hospital and private practice to evaluate the efficacy of Baclofen in alcohol dependence, which could lead to formal approval of the treatment in the coming years.

Pending the results, the Medicines Agency (MSNA) announced on 3 June a “temporary recommendation to use” (RTU) allowing physicians to prescribe Baclofen to their patients legally. “Olivier was very happy with this decision, which like all of us we had waited for for years,” said Dr. Renaud de Beaurepaire, a psychiatrist at the Paul-Guiraud hospital at Villejuif (Val-de-Marne) and a prescriber from the beginning. In recent weeks, Olivier Ameisen had said he wanted to open an office for consultation in addiction, to prescribe “his” medicine. The adventure of Baclofen will have to continue without him.


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