Nora Volkow: Breakthrough Ciéntifica

For most of her career, Dr. Nora Volkow, a 55-year-old neuroscientist, has studied the brain’s inner workings. And as the director of the National Institute on Drug Addiction, she applies her groundwork to expand our understanding of addiction.

Now that a prescription drug abuse crisis is flaming across the U.S., Volkow’s pioneer work is finally gaining more attention. Essentially she’s showing how drug addiction is an actual brain disease, and not the result of a weak personality.

Of particular concern is the disproportionate number of Latinos and African Americans whose lives have been shattered by addiction, and the incarceration to which it often leads. That’s why Volkow’s self-professed obsession is to bring her scientific breakthroughs to mainstream medicine and the general health-care system. Part of the conundrum, however, is that doctors are the legal pushers of the very drugs that are treating pain and harming so many.

It doesn’t help that addiction is starting at younger ages. According to the 2009 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 17 percent of Latino high school seniors were abusing prescription drugs. What’s worse is that doctors who are often at a loss to care for afflicted patients.

The good news is that Volkow is sharing her findings with doctors, giving them treatment tools to heal pain -- without sparking an addiction. When you treat an addict, she has said, you’re giving them -- and their family -- a chance.

by Shirley Velásquez