Childhood & Early Life
Nora Volkow was born on March 27, 1956, in Mexico City, Mexico, to a pharmaceutical father and a fashion-designer mother. Her family history is very interesting. Nora happens to be the great-granddaughter of Leon Trotsky, a popular Russian revolutionary leader who stood against Stalin. Stalin, after coming into power, had him exiled from his country. Nora’s father arrived in Mexico and started living in the same house where his grandfather had died.
Nora had three sisters and the family grew up in the same house where Leon was killed in 1940 by Russian nationalist forces. The house was later turned into the ‘Leon Trotsky House Museum’ and was subsequently thrown open to tourists. As teenagers, Nora and his sisters would often show tourists around the house.
Nora finished her high school from the ‘Modern American School,’ a local school in New Mexico. Always interested in the medical field, she then joined the ‘National University of Mexico,’ where she completed her undergraduate studies in medicine. She then moved to the US and enrolled herself at the ‘New York University,’ where she began her psychiatric residency.
She then became interested in the field of brain research, as she believed there was still a lot to be done in that area. She was overwhelmed by the new developments in the field. The concept of positron emission tomography (PET) interested her. Upon reading an article about it, she finally decided to pursue a career in brain research, focusing particularly on the effects of substance addiction on the human brain.
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Nora started her research work at the ‘Brookhaven National Laboratory’ and stayed there for a few years before she started working at the ‘NIDA,’ eventually becoming its director in 2003.
One of the most path-breaking studies that Nora conducted was geared toward determining the impact of addiction on the human brain. She performed imaging studies on the brains of addicts to reach a conclusion on the mechanisms of drug addiction. At Brookhaven, in New York, PET scanning was being used to study mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.
She moved to the ‘University of Texas’ to further her research in the field. There, she began studying cocaine addicts.
The main focus of her research was to determine how different an addict’s brain was from that of a non-addict. She and her colleagues found out that the flow of blood to the prefrontal cortex was significantly reduced in the brains of cocaine addicts. A more shocking revelation was that the blood flow did not become normal even after 10 days of withdrawal from the substance.
The findings by Nora and her team were highly rewarding for addicts, who were maligned by society for being morally flawed. The studies proved that addiction resulted in certain changes in the human brain that made the addict crave the substance again. The studies further established that the reduced blood flow to the prefrontal cortex of the brain caused certain pathological changes in the brain that made it hard for an addict to give up the substance completely.
Her arguments on her findings further established that that this change in the composition of the brain hampered cognitive-thinking abilities of the addict. The main areas of the brain affected by such addiction are the orbitofrontal cortex, responsible for a person’s focus on their goals, and the anterior cingulate cortex. According to Nora’s study, the changes in the anterior cingulate cortex make sure that the addict loses his/her ability to monitor multiple action plans regarding any situation and the ability to choose one among them.
The repeated secretion of the hormone dopamine, which is usually associated with pleasure, stimulates both the cortices and prevents them from concentrating on any goal other than taking more drugs. The brain craves frequent and repeated supply of drugs, and this leads to a complex chaotic mindset, which ends up in significant brain damage if the addiction continues. The secretion of dopamine, when persistent, attaches a motivational value to the drug, not just to the pleasure associated with it.
Thus, Nora concluded that the same was true for every other addiction. According to her, the brain changes its physical balance, and this throws the addict in the middle of a vicious cycle that becomes very hard to break. If the addict decides to quit drugs abruptly, the dopamine secretion is halted, and this leads to severe physical withdrawal effects, such as nausea and weakness.
The studies also took non-addicts into consideration. A person exposed to cocaine for the first time will feel a wave of dopamine in the brain just as an addict does every time he takes in the drug. According to Nora’s study, the addictions are hard to break, and the dopamine circuits in the brain remain blunted. The study also said that some patients may never even recover from the addictions. There is also the risk of permanent damage to the pleasure center of the brain.
Talking about the cure and possible avoidance of becoming an addict, Nora claims that the childhood of a person determines to a great degree whether a person would indulge in substance addiction or not. She urges parents to make sure the environment remains peaceful and addiction-free around the house.
Throughout most of her career, Nora has spent time at the ‘Brookhaven National Laboratory’ in Upton, New York’ working for the ‘Department of Energy.’ During her long tenure there, she has been the head of several of its branches, and has served as the ‘Director of Nuclear Medicine,’ the ‘Chairman of the Medical Department,’ and the ‘Associate Director for Life Sciences.’ She has also worked at the ‘Stony Brook University’ as a professor of psychiatry.
In 2003, she was appointed the director of ‘NIDA,’ which is part of the ‘National Institutes of Health’ (NIH). Thus, she became the first woman to ever be honored with the position. She is also the first-ever person from the ‘NIH’ to have visited Tibetan guru Dalai Lama at his residence in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India.