Today is the anniversary of Trotsky's death. --PG

Revolutionary Thinker

Leon Trotsky's Great-Granddaughter Is Following Her Own Path to Greatness

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2003; Page C01

Nora Volkow was born three years after Stalin died, and 16 years
after the Soviet dictator sent a student with an ice ax to kill her
great-grandfather. Her grandmother committed suicide, and her
grandfather was shot to death in a Stalinist prison. She grew up in
Mexico City knowing that her family was both steeped in greatness and
marked by tragedy.

Today, Volkow is the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse
and one of the United States' leading experts on the science of drug
addiction. "I've studied alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin,
marijuana and more recently obesity. There's a pattern in
compulsion," she says. "I've never come across a single person that
was addicted that wanted to be addicted. Something has happened in
their brains that has led to that process, and I want to know what it

By all accounts, Volkow is an inspired, and sometimes electrifying,
thinker. Oh, and she also is the great-granddaughter of Russian
revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Being the descendant of somebody famous can be a blessing. Barry
Bonds inherited father Bobby's baseball ability and surpassed him by
an order of magnitude. Legions of Kennedys, not to mention the
current President Bush, have had an entree into politics because of
their lineage.

But Volkow went her own way. She graduated No. 1 in her class at
Mexico City's immense National University, and over the course of two
decades ran the life sciences department at Brookhaven National
Laboratory, became a member of the National Academy of Sciences and
wrote groundbreaking papers on brain imaging and addiction with
hardly a thought about what Leon Trotsky could or could not have done
for her.

"My father didn't like to speak of Trotsky, because I think he had
been so traumatized, so he really kept us away from politics," she
says. "He never told me any of those stories until I was grown up."

She acknowledges that the family history is "fascinating" but leaves
the listener to fill in the political and spiritual blanks. Leon
Trotsky, in death as in life, was an ideological lightning rod for an
entire century. Even direct descendants know better than to tell
posterity how to think about him.

A Doer and a Thinker

Nora Volkow now gives speeches, attends multiple meetings and
schmoozes lawmakers on Capitol Hill. She talks to cops and
counselors, moving from her beloved research to embrace the community
side of the drug war. "My life is upside down!" she says with a
laugh, but she doesn't regret it: "I like challenges."

"She just burns it up," said Al Brandenstein, chief scientist of the
White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and a longtime
admirer. "She's incapable of sitting still."

Three months after arriving at NIDA's Bethesda headquarters, Volkow
clearly has not settled in. Her office is sunny, airy -- and almost
empty. There are books and some nice furniture, but the validating
staples of official Washington -- diplomas, framed thank-you letters
and, most of all, grip-and-grin photos of the office occupant with
other powerful people -- are nowhere in evidence.

Instead, Volkow has brought in paintings -- including a couple of her
own -- which sit on the floor, propped against the wall, awaiting
hammer and nails. Like Volkow herself -- an attractive woman with an
elfish grin and dark eyes flashing with intelligence -- the pictures
are bold, bright and disturbing. And they are transparently Mexican,
the only things in her office that give away her background.

"That's my dog, my Rottweiler," she said, pointing to one painting.
"She died when she was 14 years old. She liked to play that she was a
fierce dog, but she was a very gentle creature." She paused. "I like
to be a little bit playful."

But there's nothing playful about the painting, a large sepia canvas
bearing the skeletal outline of a huge hound bent toward the ground
as if scavenging a corpse.

Pressed further, Volkow explains that she paints not for relaxation
or exorcism, but for elasticity of mind -- "to break my patterns of
thinking," she says. "Does it make me think differently about
science? I'd like to think it does, but I may be deceiving myself."

Volkow thinks about thinking. This is where it has led her:

* Using imaging technology to track the activities of the human
brain, she was the first to suggest that prolonged treatment with
therapeutic drugs blunted normal thought patterns and emotions in
schizophrenics, even as the worst of their hallucinations subsided.

* She was the first to notice that cocaine addiction triggered tiny
strokes -- that cocaine was toxic -- an idea so radical at the time
that it took her three years before a journal agreed to publish it.

* And more recently she has suggested that the brains of drug addicts
have less sensitive pleasure centers -- known as dopamine receptors
-- leading them to take drugs for the sensory jolt that non-addicts
may feel without stimulus.

"She knows how to look at data better than anyone I've ever seen,"
says Brookhaven chemist Joanna Fowler, Volkow's longtime
collaborator. "When she was studying cocaine, everyone else was
focusing on how rapidly it was getting to the brain, but she focused
on how fast it was leaving the brain -- making the receptors crave
another hit."

Volkow has published more papers -- about 275 -- than anyone else in
her field. She had administrative experience as Brookhaven's
associate director for life sciences and chairman of its medical
department. She was a full professor of psychiatry at Long Island's
Stony Brook University. Given her credentials, the choice of Volkow
to head NIDA appears to have been almost a no-brainer.

And how she got there makes for an interesting story.