Nora Volkow: Two paths to the future pg. 8
“Individuals with low numbers of D2 receptors may be more vulnerable to addictive behaviors including compulsive food intake,” the researchers concluded. “We speculate that… decrements in D2 receptors perpetuate pathological eating as a means to compensate for the decreased activation of reward circuits, which are modulated by dopamine.”
Just because a person is vulnerable, however, doesn’t necessarily mean he or she will become addicted. Exercise, for example, has been shown to increase the level of D2 receptors and dopamine release in rats.
Volkow believes it may be possible to identify protective factors in humans, particularly in the age group most vulnerable to drug addiction—the adolescent.
“Very much the initiation of experimenting with drugs occurs in social settings, in group settings, in adolescents that want to actually be part of groups,” she says. “It’s a very important area of research to develop, so we can better understand the needs of kids and come with strategies to overcome situations where this response is going to be elicited.”
Volkow became a U.S. citizen in 1993. While her group published their findings prolifically, she rose through Brookhaven’s administrative ranks: director of the Nuclear Medicine Program (1994); chair of the Medical Department (1996); first director of the NIDA Regional Neuroimaging Center (1997); and the first woman to serve as Associate Laboratory Director for Life Sciences (1999).
“Nora is a dynamic, creative person with a broad vision of her field and a passion for science,” says former Brookhaven director John H. Marburger III, Ph.D., Science Advisor to the President and director of the Office of Science & Technology Policy.
“I asked her to be the Associate Director for Life Sciences at Brookhaven because I thought her dynamic style and clear vision for the work that could be done there would bring focus and energy to the division,” he says. “I think it prepared her well for her current position.”
Wolf died in 1998, but Volkow’s extraordinary partnership with Fowler and the other Brookhaven scientists continued to churn new scientific ground.
“It’s a very unusual relationship,” Fowler says. “We’re personally very close and also scientifically close, and we talk all the time… Every time I read something interesting and the same with her, we call and we talk about it.”
As Volkow’s perspective on addiction was broadening, so too were her opportunities. In the fall of 2002, Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., director of the National Institutes of Health, asked her to lead NIDA, which funds the bulk of research conducted nationally (and internationally) on the health aspects of drug abuse and addiction.
Volkow, the scientist, wanted to continue her research. Volkow, the visionary, saw an opportunity to apply that research to improve the lives of people. Armed with Zerhouni’s promise that she could continue her research (she spends a long weekend every month at Brookhaven), in April 2003 she became the fifth person and first woman to direct the 30-year-old institute, which now has an annual budget of more than $1 billion.