NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse
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Meet Dr. Nora Volkow, Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse

Meet Dr. Nora Volkow, Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse

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Sara Bellum
July 13, 2011

First, a quiz. What doesn’t belong in this list?

a) World History
b) Running
c) Dark Chocolate
d) Brain Science

Dr. Nora Volkow is a Mexican-born psychiatrist who fell in love with the brain very early in her scientific career, thanks to an article she read as a medical student in Mexico about a new brain technology, Positron Emission Tomography—or PET scans. With PET scans, scientists were able to peer into people’s brains to map what kind of connections are inside a living, breathing human being, and to see where certain behaviors were linked to that map. It was more than just looking at a photograph of the brain, it was looking at snapshots of emotions, desires, and thoughts, and it set her on a path towards understanding the triggers in the brain that lead to abuse—or addiction—to everything from prescription drugs to chocolate to the computer game Tetris.

What could such different things possibly have in common? According to an interview in the New York Times, Dr. Volkow has a one-word response: dopamine. The surge of this hormone through the body stimulates the brain’s pleasure and reward system, tricking the brain into wanting more. This feeling of getting “high” makes it harder for some people to experience the normal pleasures in life—including friends, family, and healthy activities.

Dr. Volkow’s scientific career includes not only directing the National Institute on Drug Abuse at NIH, but also conducting brain research at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. In case you’re curious about how a researcher can also run a government institute, as Dr. Volkow says, “Science and politics are intertwined.”

So have you figured out the answer to our quiz: What doesn’t belong in this list?

Aha, a trick question! The correct answer is they all belong—a, b, c, and d are all things that can describe Dr. Nora Volkow.

a) Her great-grandfather was Leon Trotsky, one of the architects of the Russian Revolution who went into exile in Mexico City.

b) Running is the activity that Dr. Volkow indulges in that produces the “runners high” caused by an exercise-induced dopamine reward in the brain.

c) Chocolate, for Dr. Volkow, is its own reward.

d) Brain science is what she loves even more than chocolate.

In fact, neuroscience (the science of the brain) is emerging as the key to creating treatments to counteract the drug-induced brain changes that can lead to addiction, a belief held by many policy experts and researchers like Dr. Volkow.

Comments

The NIDA is lucky to have Dr. Volkow as it's leader. Her lessons on how drug addiction is a disease and mental illness that hijacks the mind's reward pathways, tricking the brain into believing that continuing drug use is as important as eating food, should be shared in every school and classroom.

It may only take smoking nicotine a couple of times before the brain begins wanting and begging for more. Imagine being really hungry and badly craving food. Now imagine craving smoking nicotine just as much or more, and not just a couple of times a day but every thirty minutes or so for the rest of your life. It's why half the adult smokers we see today already know the cause of death that will be printed on their death certificate.

Please help spread the word, friends don't addict friends to nicotine!

I really congratulate you for your work, ME country this topic affects us all by igusl rich and poor, children and youth; shame that this war does not fight with science as you do it but with more war, god bless you.
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What a great Work, that's the drug boys

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You are really an asset to the Recovery Community!

Looking forward to seeing more of your work, Dr. Volkow.

your work is interesting.

Really good contribution. What do you think about psychology and drugs ?

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@Peter R. Because addiction can affect so many aspects of a person's life, treatment should address the “whole person” to be successful. This includes their psychological needs, as well as their medical, social, employment, and legal needs. Effective interventions include those that help people recognize, avoid, and cope with situations where they are most likely to abuse drugs. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an example of this approach. Also, group therapy can help people face their drug abuse realistically and boost their motivation to stay drug free. Patients learn effective ways to solve their emotional and interpersonal problems without resorting to drugs. So behavioral psychology is an important area of science for helping people recover from drug abuse and addiction.

I just viewed Dr. Volkow's news report on CBS's 60 minutes. Her work is very interesting. I really connected with her research. I wish we would spend more time on investigating how the medical community is contributing to the drug problem in this country. My son transitioned into heroine use after becoming addicted to prescription drugs THAT WERE PRESCRIBED BY PHYSICIANS OVER AND OVER AGAIN! It's a joke and I would say "criminal" how they prescribe. There is no warning, no education, and no monitoring of patients using these highly addictive drugs. It's just unbelievable! We need to hold the medical community to much higher standards here!

i saw an intervew where Dr volkov said that the brain of a cocaine addict showed marked increase in dopamine when the addict is shown pictures of people snorting cocaine and how the brain rembers the cocaine high,I was a cocaine user 31 years ago.I had not touched cocaine in 31 years,Recently i was discussing my cocaine use in depth to a freind and how much i enjoyed it..Within 2 hours id purchased a half gram and was snotrting it.Somthing i never thought id ever do again.The next day the shame of what id done was undescribable.I could not beleve what i had done.31 years ago i had sworn id never do it again then this happened.All i can do now is try to be stronger and never do this again but after this ill never be sure it wont ever happen again.What Dr Volkov said about the brain and Cocaine addiction is without question true.

Dr. Volkow: you are my Hero. Working with our community coalition, I have studied much of your research and ordered many things for our youth groups from NIDA. I would love to have you visit our area and help enlighten our citizens about addiction. You are a pioneer.

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