Princeton students and community members gathered on Tuesday night in McCosh 50 for a talk titled “The Neurobiology of Drug Addiction” given by Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Volkow, whose research focuses on drug addiction in a neurobiological context, shared the most recent insights in her field while reflecting on preconceptions about drug addiction.
“Drug addiction is a disease of the brain,” Volkow said, noting that our society often treats the problem as “criminal behavior” rather than a “medical disorder.”
“Addiction disrupts the areas of the brain that are fundamental and enable us to perform free will,” Volkow explained. Free will is critical to the experience of the average human being, making it difficult to empathize with the experience of drug addicts, she added.
However, Volkow explained, scientific understanding of drug addiction underwent a major breakthrough following the development of brain imaging. She noted how the knowledge concerning the human brain has “exploded” over the last 10 to 15 years due to these new imaging technologies and the use of laboratory animals.
Highlighting the importance of imaging, Volkow visually conveyed her findings through an accompanying slideshow. One of her images contrasted a brain affected by cocaine abuse with a normal brain.
Through studying glucose concentration levels, scientists have discovered that drug addiction affects the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex, she explained, a discovery that established a direct link between drug addiction and the orbitofrontal cortex’s inhibitory role.
Volkow also stressed drug addiction’s status as a ”developmental disease,” presenting a graph of marijuana addiction that showed that dependency peaks around late adolescence and early adulthood.
In addressing why young people are especially vulnerable, Volkow focused on two points: brain underdevelopment and the plasticity of the brain. The brain is not fully developed until early adulthood, she explained. A missing connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amydgala hinders control of emotions, making adolescents more susceptible to peer pressure.
To illustrate the plasticity of the adolescent brain, Volkow provided the example of language learning: “The languages that I learned as a kid are the ones that I remember,” she said. While beneficial to learning, such a malleable brain is dangerous for drug involvement.
Volkow noted that approximately 50 percent of drug addiction is “genetically determined” but also pointed out the documented influence of certain social conditions. She presented data, gathered from 8,603 individuals, that charted a direct correlation between the number of stress sources, such as poverty and abuse, and the odds of drug addiction.
During the final part of her talk, Volkow refuted what she described as a misconception propagated by insurance companies that drug addiction cannot be treated.
Volkow challenged the logic of these companies, who, she said, view hypertension as a legitimate disease even though blood pressure rises following treatment, yet consider drug addiction “untreatable” because treatment results are not permanent.
Stephanie Noble ’12, who said she attended the lecture because of her interest in neuroscience and the “molecular mechanisms behind addiction,” said she enjoyed the lecture and appreciated Volkow’s eloquence and passion.
Born in Mexico, Volkow attended the Modern American School and the National University of Mexico in Mexico City and completed her psychiatric residence at New York University. Previously featured in Time’s “Top 100 People who Shape Our World,” Volkow has been the director of the NIDA since 2003.