Revolutionary Thinker
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 is."

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.