Neuroscientist Hart demystifies science of drug addiction for Assembly Series

Panel discussion on addiction will follow Oct. 10 lecture

Neuroscientist Carl Hart, PhD, will deliver “Demystifying the Science of Drug Addiction: Neuroscience, Self-discovery, Race and U.S. Drug Policy” at 11 a.m. Friday, Oct. 10, in Anheuser Busch Hall Moot Courtroom for the Washington University in St. Louis Assembly Series. The talk is the annual Chancellor’s Fellows Lecture.


Since Richard Nixon declared war on drugs in 1971, the U.S. government, law enforcement, media and scientific communities have emphasized the damaging effects and dangers of illicit drugs. The message was clear: all drugs are bad. Some of the more famous slogans, such as “Just Say No,” and “This Is Your Brain on Drugs,” accompanied by an image of frying eggs, solidly reinforced the message.

More than four decades later, Hart implores a closer look at his research data, which debunks some of the most entrusted scientific evidence of drug addiction.

In his presentation, Hart will describe his extraordinary journey from an impoverished childhood, to drug user and dealer, to distinguished professor and researcher, as outlined in his 2013 book, “High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society.” The book combines scientific evidence with his life experiences, and won the 2014 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.

After the talk, at 2 p.m. Oct. 10, Hart will join a broader discussion featuring Washington University faculty and students in Umrath Lounge, moderated by Kenneth E. Freedland, PhD, professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Panelists are:

  • David Patterson, PhD, assistant professor of social work in the Brown School;
  • Rumi Kato Price, professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine;
  • Juliette Iacovino, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology in Arts & Sciences; and
  • Mario Ortega, a doctoral candidate in neuroscience in the School of Medicine.

A book signing will follow. Both events are free and open to the public.

When Hart began his research in the 1990s, he set out to find a solution to block the powerful chemical reward system that caused drug addiction. As a child, Hart had experienced addiction’s devastation and despair, and conquered many obstacles to be in a position to stop such widespread destruction.

But after studying drug addicts in the laboratory, his results strongly indicated that drugs weren’t as powerful as they were believed to be, at least not when another attractive, more rational option is presented as an alternative.

These findings led him to question the veracity of his initial hypothesis — that it was illicit drugs that caused the downward spiral of individuals such as his cousin, a crackhead who lived in a backyard shed. This, in turn, led to one of his more controversial theories: that using illicit drugs is a symptom of the socio-economic conditions in which people are forced to live.

“The key factor is the environment,” Hart said. “If you’re living in a poor neighborhood deprived of options, there’s a certain rationality to keep taking a drug that will give you some temporary pleasure.”

In his hometown of New York, Hart works to improve conditions for socio-economically deprived communities. While in St. Louis, he will meet with community activists in the St. Louis area, including a group of students and faculty at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley to discuss ongoing community service in Ferguson, Mo.

Hart completed his graduate training in experimental psychology and neuroscience in 1996 at the University of Wyoming, then completed postdoctoral research training at the University of California at San Francisco, Yale University and Columbia.

To learn more about Hart, including videos of recent talks, visit

For information on upcoming Assembly Series programs, visit assembly