Nora Volkow

Nora D. Volkow, M.D., is the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which supports most of the world’s research on the health aspects of drug abuse and addiction. Dr. Volkow’s work as a scientist has been instrumental in demonstrating that drug addiction is a disease of the human brain and, as NIDA Director, her work has promoted research that improves the prevention and treatment of substance use disorders. As a research psychiatrist, Dr. Volkow pioneered the use of brain imaging to investigate the toxic effects and addictive properties of abusable drugs. Her studies documented the disruption of the dopamine system in addiction and characterized its consequences to the function of the human brain including frontal brain regions and their involvement with motivation, executive function and self-regulation. She has also made important contributions to the neurobiology of obesity, ADHD, and aging and has published more than 785 peer-reviewed articles, written more than 100 book chapters and non-peer-reviewed manuscripts, co-edited a Neuroscience Encyclopedia and edited four books on neuroimaging for mental and addictive disorders.

How drugs affect the brain

Addiction is a disorder that involves complex interactions between genes, development, and the social environment. Studies using neuroimaging technology, paired with behavioral measurements, and more recently genetics, have led to remarkable progress in the discovery of the neurochemical and functional changes that occur in the brains of addicted subjects. Studies have shown that large and rapid increases in dopamine (the neurotransmitter that plays a central role in reward) have been linked with the rewarding properties of drugs. The addicted state, in striking contrast, is marked by significant decreases in brain dopamine levels. These decreases result in dysfunction of brain regions responsible for controlling reward, motivation, memory and self-control. Discovery of such disruptions in the fine balance that normally exists between these brain circuits have important implications for designing targeted interventions for the prevention and treatment of addictive disorders. The resurging opioid epidemic with its devastating overdose fatality tolls, compounded by the increases in drug use and overdose deaths attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic have made finding effective strategies all the more urgent.

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How drugs affect the brain

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