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September 16, 2008

Addiction Scientist


Drug and alcohol addiction is a third-rail issue, but National Institute on Drug Abuse director Nora Volkow isn’t afraid to touch it. Her latest research probes the best treatment options including the possibility of addiction vaccines. We caught up at her Bethesda office just before she headed off to an international AIDS conference in Mexico City.


This is your brain on Skittles. Nora’s road to becoming NIDA’s director in ’03 was paved with twists: In the early 80s her first research proposal was denied, but three years later she launched a study of the toxic effects of cocaine on the brain and its insidious behavior changes. She was the first to probe chemical changes in the addicted brain and has dug deep into feel-good chemicals like Dopamine. Her latest research uses imaging technology to examine common features between drug addiction and obesity. In both, she says, “They want to quit, but they can’t stop.” It’s like using brakes that aren’t working.


New studies are evaluating treatment that offers long-term support beyond the obligatory 30-day rehab stint because short-term fixes aren’t cutting it.  Nora says that treatment does work particularly when consequences reward sober living rather than wield a punitive sword. Typically, one relapse means the addict can kiss his bed at the halfway house goodbye. Addiction vaccines are also on the radar. Recent research suggests the possibility of vaccines for cocaine and nicotine. Meth and heroin could soon follow.


Downtime adventures like hiking, running, and swimming with dolphins help Nora escape, but she’s still a realist. “There’s not a magic pill” that can cure addiction. Only when addiction becomes a clear-cut medical disease will the pharmaceutical companies sit up and take notice. She adds that if so many young people were dying from any other disease, the nation would not ignore it.

Our contributing writer for this issue has been Jacqueline M. Duda, a health journalist who has written for The Washington Post health section and countless other medical-related gigs. Her interest in digging for the facts about addiction isn’t only professional. It’s personal. She lost her 22 year-old daughter to heroin addiction in 2006.

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