Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

NIDA Director Nora Volkow: Please Scan My Brain

Dr. Nora Volkow, with her brain scans.

It was announced yesterday that Nora Volkow, M.D. was given this year’s Joan and Stanford Alexander Award in Psychiatry by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.


The Medscape story talks about how Volkow got interested in studying addicts: she has a family history of addiction on her maternal side. She said,

On my mother’s side of the family there is a history of alcoholism. My uncle was an alcoholic. He was an extraordinary person, but when he was intoxicated his behavior was so profoundly disrupted, and I wanted to understand that. So I had that scientific curiosity about the brain, and then I had this person I loved very much, so I wanted to figure out how to help someone overcome the overpowering drive to drink alcohol. That’s why I ended up in the whole area of drug addiction.

Her comments make me think of the “profoundly disrupted” behavior of my grandfather, who scared the shit out of his kids (my mother and her brother) when he got drunk, throwing glass against the wall and grabbing the rifle from the pantry, where he kept it loaded. I think of the many alcoholics on my dad’s side (including my dad himself). After my dad died of his alcoholism, I learned that his mother was prone to drinking cheap whisky till she sat at the kitchen table, unable or unwilling to speak. My Grandma, a catatonic alcoholic.

Volkow’s work is pioneering in that she established with scientific evidence that addiction is a “disease of the brain” and that drugs (of which alcohol is one) change brain chemistry and functioning in ways that lead to drug-taking that is compulsive despite harm—the clinical definition of addiction. Twelve-step programs had been calling addiction and alcoholism a “disease” for a long time, and Volkow has PET scans of active addicts’ brains to back up this assertion. But because of the emphasis on the “medical” evidence for the disease of addiction, the resulting emphasis in treatment has been “medical”—that is, developing and/or studying drug approaches to arrest drug addiction.

Dear Dr. Volkow, if I could speak with you, what I’d want to ask is this: Now that you’ve studied the brain chemistry of addicts inside their disease, have you thought about scanning the brains of addicts who have found recovery from this disease—people who have been sober for a while? What brain-changes might you find?

Please study people in recovery. I’ll be first in line. And I’ve got lots of friends who have lots of sober-time. Shoot me an email: Guinevere (at) guineveregetssober (dot) com.


1 Comment

  1. Good question G. I wonder if their brains are less excited in certain lobes than the actively drinking alcoholic brain.

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