Nora Volkow: Two paths to the future  pg. 2

At the same time, says Fowler, “she’s a very compassionate person ... very much involved in the social impacts of drug abuse.

“Drug addiction impacts enormously even on things that you wouldn’t normally think of, like cancer in cigarette smoking, like heart disease, like violence with alcoholics, and accidents and AIDS,” she says. “I think we’re very fortunate to have a person like Nora.”

“I see her as a warrior fighting against a universal enemy,” adds her younger sister, Natalia Volkow, Ph.D. “It’s such a horrible enemy and so difficult to beat. And that’s why I think she chose this subject of study. Nora has never taken the easy way in life, never.”

Volkow, born in 1956, displays an intriguing amalgam of traits: athletic drive and stamina (the former competitive swimmer runs six miles every morning before work); an exuberant sense of wonder about the world; and a knack of looking at science through the eyes of an artist (a painter, her older sister is Mexican poet Verónica Volkow).

Most importantly, she says, “I’m a scientist. I’ve always loved science. That’s how I see myself.”

So far in her career, Volkow has authored or contributed to more than 300 scientific articles. Through groundbreaking imaging studies of the brain’s frontal cortex and its dopamine-driven circuitry, she has helped reveal the neurobiological underpinnings of addiction, and how drug-induced changes in brain chemistry contribute to its hallmark craving, compulsion and loss of control.

Two paths

Addiction is not the only area that has come under Volkow’s sharp-eyed scrutiny.

Nora with her mother in 1980
Photos courtesy of Nora and Natalia Volkow
She and her Brookhaven colleagues also have linked long-term use of anti-psychotic drugs to the withdrawal and blunting of emotions seen in individuals with schizophrenia; showed how therapeutic doses of Ritalin and other stimulants can improve attention; and found evidence that dopamine, a chemical messenger important in drug addiction, may also play a role in over-eating and obesity.

“She really is one of those people who think very much into the future,” says former NIDA director Alan I. Leshner, Ph.D., CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “She’s always, in her own research, been leading the cutting edge… She has brought that to NIDA as well. That’s exactly where it ought to be.”

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