Nora Volkow: Two paths to the future

Nora Volkow’s revolutionary approach to addiction

Bill Snyder
Published: February, 2006

Nora as a teenager
Photos courtesy of Nora and Natalia Volkow
Cocaine was considered to be a “safe” party drug in the high-flying ’80s when a young psychiatrist decided to see what it did to the brain.

Using an imaging technique called PET, Nora Volkow, M.D., and her colleagues at the University of Texas in Houston documented areas of “deranged” cerebral blood flow resembling tiny strokes in people who took copious amounts of the drug.

Cocaine was known to constrict blood vessels. Heavy use of the drug had been linked to fatal heart attacks and strokes. Yet their findings at first were greeted with skepticism.

Then in 1986, University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias collapsed and died of a cocaine overdose, and the tide began to turn. “When you go against the current, it takes time to change its course,” says Volkow, now director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Just as she once helped dislodge widely held notions about cocaine, today this strong-minded scientist is determined to transform the way addicts are treated—or, more often, not treated—by the medical profession and the criminal justice system.

While she sees this a part of her duty as a physician, to serve the most vulnerable members of society, Volkow also acknowledges the world-changing legacy of her great-grandfather, exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Photo by Rhoda Baer
“It’s not religious; it’s just a sense of humanity, a sense of being part of humankind,” she says, her words wrapped in the melodic tones of her native Mexico. “You are alive, you have a certain talent, and you have a responsibility to use it to help others.”

“This is the smartest person I know,” says Joanna Fowler, Ph.D., senior chemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., who has worked with Volkow since the mid-1980s. “People just glom onto her. She’s like pouring out ideas all day… She can take a problem and very easily see through it; see relationships, simplify things.”

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