Nora Volkow, a psychiatrist who revolutionized the science of addiction, has set her sights even further: addiction treatment.
Volkow was the first person to show the effects cocaine has on the brain. She has also used brain scanning tools to find the exact changes in the brain that addiction causes, as well as the physical abnormalities inherited by some people that make them more vulnerable to addiction. Her research has had major implications in the study of addiction as a whole; her brain scanning experiments pushed forward the notion that addiction is more than a lack of willpower.
Now, still pushing the limits, she has proposed that the same neural mechanisms behind cocaine and alcohol addiction are also responsible for eating disorders leading to obesity – namely the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for our decision-making abilities.
Volkow also discovered the abnormal functioning of the D2 receptor in the brains of addicts. In her research, she found that drug addicts have reduced numbers of the D2 receptor – which is responsible for determining how sensitive an individual is to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is associated with rewarding feelings and pleasure. This causes individuals with decreased numbers of D2 receptors to have improper functioning of their prefrontal cortex and have difficulty controlling their compulsive behavior, while also lessening their ability to find something rewarding or valuable.
This is where Volkow looks to apply her research to drug rehabilitation. Addicts with lower numbers of D2 receptors than the average person are much less sensitive to traditional reinforces such as money or food; they are only really interested in the drug, making detoxification and abstinence a difficult problem because only the drug is rewarding to them. In an ideal world, says Volkow, scientists would be able to develop a biochemical intervention that would be able to increase the number of D2 receptors in the brain, but this is not feasible in the near future.
Now, her main objective is to try and advance the science behind medications for drug addiction treatment. She believes that with the current knowledge we have, there should be a medication available that would help individuals overcome their addiction, however there has been push back from pharmaceutical companies who are not overly interested in that sort of development. To try and combat this, Volkow has partnered with some pharmaceutical companies. She hopes that her work will help change the negative associations some companies feel with develop should they work with addiction science.