Dr. Nora Volkow

Addiction and the Brain


story by: diane alter


The road to alcohol and drug addiction starts with the voluntary decision to take a drink or to take a drug. However, over time, some do not have control over that once-voluntary action. The reason lies within the brain, in parts that affect reward, motivation, learning, memory and behavior. They are critical areas changed because of alcohol and drugs. As Dr. Nora D. Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains, addiction is a disease that affects the brain, and thus, behavior.

Dr. Volkow is a pioneer in the use of brain imaging to investigate the toxic and addictive properties of abusive drugs. She recently sat down with Latino Leaders to talk about her work, the addiction problem plaguing the Latino community, what can be done about it, and her role as a leader in the fight.

Dr. Volkow’s path to a life in medicine started when she was just a child. Her family history, deliciously rich in both medicine and politics, stoked her ambition to study science and have a positive influence on others. Born in Mexico City, Dr. Volkow is the great granddaughter of Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky. The patriarch immigrated to Mexico because it was the only place that would grant the leader asylum. Dr. Volkow’s father, Esteban Volkow, is the son of Leon Trotsky’s elder daughter, Zinaida Volkova. A chemist, Esteban encouraged Dr. Volkow’s voracious curiosity with gifts of chemistry kits and books. Without question, he had a big impact on her career choice.

“My father was very passionate about science, and that significantly influenced me,” Dr. Volkow said. “I was about 13 when he gave me some biographies about important scientists. It was then I knew what my life’s calling was to be. That was the start of my quest to pursue science, with the aim of positively influencing others. It was an obvious career choice for me, but it was more than that. I am a very inquisitive person. I like to explore things in depth and understand how and why they work. My desire was to marry science with improving the lives of people.”

After earning her medical degree from the National University of Mexico in Mexico City, where she received the Robin award for the best medical student of her generation, Dr. Volkow completed her psychiatric residency at New York University (NYU). There, she was presented with the Laughlin Fellowship Award and recognized as one of the 10 outstanding Psychiatric Residents in the United States.

Dr. Volkow explained her original plan was to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), not NYU. But before she was to start at MIT, and with seven months of vacation time ahead of her, she convinced her father to support her while she spent the time conducting volunteer research work at NYU. The focus of Dr. Volkow’s work was brain imaging.

“I became riveted by the potential of the tools and technology available that lead to the understanding of how the human brain works,” Dr. Volkow said. “I decided to stay on at NYU for my residency, while at the same time being able to conduct research.”

What led Dr. Volkow to study addiction was her quest to discover what actually happens in the brain when a person loses control. Specifically, how a drug ultimately changes the ability of self-determination and self-will. “I was very interested in what the biological alternations are that can cause a person to change their behavior so dramatically. The explanation is actually chemistry. Drugs can change chemicals in the brain that result in behavioral changes.”

A number of factors explain the growing addiction problem among Latinos. Genetics play a role, as do societal stresses that pressure many to identify with individuals they see as similar. “In a society where peers are more accepting of drug taking, you are apt to see similar behavior among a specific and related group,” Dr. Volkow said.



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