Nora Volkow: Two paths to the future pg. 5
The living brain
“She was a great reader of all kinds of books,” her father recalls. At the same time, “Nora always was a very warm and sweet person. She always showed a great love and passion for animals.”
Volkov is not in the least surprised at the meteoric rise of his middle daughter’s career. “Nora has a very basic principle,” he says. “She always had a very, very great respect for the truth.”
Fluent in four languages (including French and German), Volkow received her undergraduate and medical school training at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, where she was recognized as the best student of her undergraduate and medical school classes.
In 1981, after receiving her medical degree, she read an article in Scientific American about a new imaging technology called positron emission tomography (PET). She was mesmerized by the splotchy, brilliantly colored images of the living brain. In an instant, the direction of her life changed.
Instead of the applying for postgraduate study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Volkow opted for residency training in psychiatry at New York University and the chance to work—in a collaborative research program—with the PET pioneers at Brookhaven, a Department of Energy-operated laboratory near the far end of Long Island.
Five years earlier, a Brookhaven team led by Fowler and Alfred P. Wolf, Ph.D., had produced a radiotracer for glucose, the brain’s primary fuel. Colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania used it to create the first images of the living human brain. The intensity of the color on the PET scan reflected the concentration of 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG), and thus where the brain was active.
By the early 1980s, the Brookhaven team—bolstered by an energetic psychiatry resident—was using PET to study the brains of people with schizophrenia. Their images revealed decreased brain activity in the frontal cortex of patients who had been taking anti-psychotic drugs like Thorazine for long periods of time. “The greater the decrease in brain activity, the greater the ‘poverty of thinking,’” Volkow says.
Anti-psychotic drugs like Thorazine were known to block the receptors for dopamine, a neurotransmitter that conveys signals between the frontal cortex and other parts of the brain. The frontal cortex, in turn, is involved in a host of cognitive and “executive” functions, from language and memory to impulse control and the ability to solve problems.
While the researchers were unable to determine how much of the withdrawal and blunting of emotions observed in the patients was due to the drugs, and how much to their disease, the study was one of the first to open up the frontal cortex through the window of PET.
After completing her residency in 1984, Volkow moved to the University of Texas in Houston to continue her research at a PET research center founded by cardiologist K. Lance Gould, M.D. Here her path turned again.