Today is the anniversary of Trotsky's
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
* 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
* 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