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