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  Revolutionary Thinker
Posted by CN Staff on August 20, 2003 at 20:25:15 PT
By Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post Staff Writer 
Source: Washington Post  

NIDA 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.

The Father

The hero of the piece is Esteban Volkow Bronstein, now 78, a retired chemical engineer. He moved from Turkey to Mexico City in 1940 to join his grandfather, Leon Trotsky, in the large, high-ceilinged house at Viena 45 in Coyoacan, a well-to-do neighborhood of distinctive homes.

By that time, most of the family was either dead or marked for death -- hounded into exile, pursued across continents or killed in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. Esteban's grandmother -- Trotsky's first wife -- died in exile in Siberia. His father and uncle -- Trotsky's sons-in-law -- were imprisoned and shot.

His mother was able to take an ailing Esteban -- then called Sieva -- out of the Soviet Union to join her father in Turkey, but her citizenship was revoked before she could return for her daughter. She committed suicide. Her sister died of tuberculosis at age 26, and her niece disappeared.

One of Trotsky's sons by his second marriage died young in a Paris hospital. The second -- an apolitical engineer -- died in a Stalinist concentration camp.

"So my father has no family," recounts Nora Volkow. "My father ends up with Trotsky in Mexico because no one else was alive."

By 1940 Trotsky had been on the run for 11 years, since he lost a final power struggle to Joseph Stalin. Trotsky was one of the leaders of the October Revolution and served as the Soviet Union's first foreign minister and first war minister and was viewed as the second most powerful person in the Revolutionary government, until the death of Vladimir I. Lenin in 1924. Stalin sent him and his doctrine of "permanent revolution" into exile -- to Turkey, France, Norway and, finally, in 1937, to Mexico City. For two years, Trotsky and his second wife, Natalya, lived with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and his wife, the artist Frida Kahlo, in Kahlo's Coyoacan home. The couples had a falling out -- probably because Trotsky was having an affair with Kahlo -- and the Trotskys moved to the Calle Viena house a few blocks away.

Stalin was actively hunting Trotsky by then, and Trotsky's followers built a wall around the Viena house and installed a sentry box. A band of Stalinist hirelings attacked the compound with machine guns one night, but the guards drove them off. Esteban was in the bedroom next to his grandparents when bullets splattered the walls.

A few weeks later, on Aug. 20, 1940, a Soviet agent using the name Ramon Mercader presented himself as an eager young Marxist acolyte, gained access to Trotsky's study and buried an ice ax in his head. Trotsky died the next day.

What Esteban Volkow felt can only be imagined. "I've asked him those questions, but he kept that life very separate, and I think it was hard for him to deal with it," his daughter says. "It took him a while."

Trotsky's House

Nora Volkow was born in the Calle Viena house on March 27, 1956, and lived there until she graduated from high school. It is perhaps a testament to Esteban Volkow's ability to hold his demons at bay that his daughter took obvious pleasure living in a house that for her was never haunted, but simply home.

"There were rooms that Trotsky used for visitors, and my father transformed those into the house where we lived," Volkow says. "He wanted us not to touch anything in the [museum portion of the] house -- not that we always followed the rules." She smiles. "Actually when I needed to study, I would go into Natalya's office, because I was not allowed to go into Trotsky's studio."

Esteban lived comfortably as a Mexican citizen, and though he maintained the Trotsky house as a private museum, he stayed away from politics, "sensitive not to jeopardize his own family in any way," Volkow says. "What I learned about Trotsky, I learned by reading and interacting with family friends, and from living in the house, not from my father."

Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein of Jewish parents. Esteban Volkow uses Bronstein in his own name, but does not practice Judaism. Neither does his daughter, although she takes pride in a background that is half Jewish and half Roman Catholic from her Spanish-born mother.

"I have the two great religions," Volkow says, but she claims neither. "Trotsky was very sensitive to how identities segregate people, so he didn't identify himself as Jewish. He said he belonged to the human race, and I was never given any type of identification as belonging to the Jewish or the Christian."

Only once did history intrude on Nora Volkow's childhood. A star student who had been fully committed to science since she was 5 years old, she was offered a scholarship to study in Russia when she graduated from high school at the English-language Modern American School.

"I wanted to go," Volkow says. "My father was extremely disturbed, but being an adolescent, I was ignoring his advice. Then friends of the family said, 'Nora, you're putting yourself and your family at risk. You go to Russia and they can say how open the government is because they have Trotsky's great-granddaughter there,' " even though Trotsky was still officially a nonperson.

So instead she entered medical school at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM), Mexico's national university, a seemingly odd choice given her U.S.-style private education and fluent English.

"Yes, but I wanted to be a doctor, and the medical school at UNAM was very good," she says. And at UNAM she could get her MD in six years, with no pre-med undergraduate degree, required courses in irrelevant subjects or other distractions.

She graduated in 1981 as both UNAM's best student and the "outstanding medical student" of her 2,000-member medical school class, and was preparing to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a PhD fellowship in the fall.

But she got sidetracked. Reading a copy of Scientific American that summer, she learned about brain imaging -- studying the human brain in three dimensions by using scanners to detect radioactive tracers injected into a patient. Different tracers highlighted different brain activities that provided information on neurological disorders like stroke, epilepsy, Alzheimer's disease -- and drug addiction.

"You could actually image the human brain alive, and I went wild about it," Volkow says. The work was being done at New York University in collaboration with Brookhaven, "so I said to my father, I'm going to NYU and see if I can volunteer. I didn't know anyone," she says. "I just got on a plane."

She showed up a few days later in the anteroom of Robert Cancro, chairman of the NYU School of Medicine's psychiatry department, who met with her and gave her a job. "Evidently he must have liked me," she says.

Evidently. "You had to be pretty stupid to miss it, actually," recalls Cancro, still the department chairman and a close friend of Volkow's. "It was clear she was bright, anxious, enthusiastic and you could see the drive. I mean, after all, I am a psychiatrist."

Volkow's first paper focused on the equipment -- how to use it to get information on cancerous brain tumors without resorting to surgery. "Suddenly I have this tool that measures biochemical transformations without opening up someone and removing a piece of tissue," she recalls, her voice still hinting at the wonder that these early experiments evoked.

Then she turned to schizophrenia -- what could brain imaging tell you about neurological disorders? She showed that medications interacted with the centers in the schizophrenic brain that governed the disease. She wanted to know if the interactions were what caused "poverty of thought," a crippling condition in which schizophrenics lose the ability to feel pleasure and excitement, and in which the whole thinking process slows down. Subsequent research has confirmed and extended her findings.

In 1984 she left NYU for an assistant professorship at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, expecting to continue her research. "They had a fantastic imaging center," Volkow recalls, but as it happened, "there wasn't a single schizophrenic in the university hospital."

What the hospital did have was cocaine addicts, so Volkow adapted. "I was probably the first person to use these new technologies for the investigation of drugs of abuse," she says, but her work was ignored initially, especially her seminal paper documenting strokes in the brains of cocaine abusers.

"I started to present these data at meetings, and people didn't believe it, because there was no evidence that cocaine was toxic," she says. " 'That's fine,' I said. 'But this is what the data show.' "

She applied for a grant from NIDA to pursue her research and was turned down; it took three years before the British Journal of Psychiatry finally published her paper. "This is what happens to you when you come up with things before their time," Volkow says.

While in Texas, she married Stephen Adler, a high-energy physicist at the University of Texas at Houston. They moved to Brookhaven, where both could continue their research.

Volkow was there when the NIDA search committee came knocking. Her predecessor at NIDA, Alan Leshner, now CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, regarded her, "without exaggerating, as the ideal person," he says. "She has taught us a tremendous amount about the science of addiction, and we need strong leadership to move to the next level. If I had been able to pick my successor, it would have been her."

For Volkow, the biggest question was whether she could stand to curtail her own research, but in the end "there was no way to say no," she says. "I spent 25 years studying drug addiction, and this is really an opportunity to enforce change with much more impact -- an opportunity to mold the field and make a difference."

The Old Country

Volkow, a U.S. citizen since 1993, does not hold dual citizenship but she returns to Mexico "maybe once a year, now, since my mother died," she says. The Mexican government finally took over the Trotsky Museum, "a great relief" for her father, who no longer has to maintain it.

Esteban Volkow began to come out of his shell in the late 1980s with the advent of perestroika but maintained he would never return to Russia. Then, "I guess it was about 10 years ago," his daughter says, "he gets a call from a friend who says 'Esteban, we have found your sister.' Everybody thought she was dead."

So he went for a Moscow visit. His sister, Eva, was dying of cancer. She had heard no news of her family since her mother took Esteban to Turkey in 1930. "She never knew why she was left behind," Volkow says. "She felt abandoned." Eva died two months after her brother's visit, the last tragedy of the Trotsky diaspora.

But the world has changed.

Last year Nora Volkow and her husband went to St. Petersburg for a week's vacation. It was her first visit to the city she still calls Leningrad. She jogged along the Neva River and marveled at the spectacular palaces and the "megalomania" that created them.

Then she left, her sojourn unremarked and unrecorded in the old Russian capital. "I wanted to be completely, completely anonymous," she says.

And she was.

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

Source: Washington Post (DC)
Author: Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post Staff Writer
Published: Thursday, August 21, 2003; Page C01
Copyright: 2003 Washington Post

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Comment #4 posted by Lehder on August 21, 2003 at 07:13:13 PT
fiat papers
they're like a currency that can be printed in numbers unlimited and without regard to substance. they must be gold mines of junk science.

[ Post Comment ]
Comment #3 posted by Nicholas Thimmesch on August 21, 2003 at 07:11:04 PT:

She's still...
....her father's daughter: willing to be the Happy Idiot. There where people on the other end of them bombs.

[ Post Comment ]
Comment #2 posted by Lehder on August 21, 2003 at 06:08:35 PT
published 275 papers, graduated in 1981
she's a veritable one-woman institution! writes a paper every month, year in, year out, eh? i'm laughing. i've met people like this. she has flunkies writing ill-considered trivialities, signs her name to them - at the top too i'll bet. but the government measures success and achievement by counting papers, not reading them. there's a lot of funding pressure to publish in large numbers. her "achievements" do not measure up to the higher calling of profligate destruction of life, but profligate corruption of science and culture is the second best way to succeed.

[ Post Comment ]
Comment #1 posted by Virgil on August 21, 2003 at 02:26:28 PT
The WP is a whore for fascists brainwashing
This article would have you think Valcow rose to her position because she has lead the world in overcoming addiction. She may have a beautiful mind but what got her that cush job was not an independent mind. It is the ability to parrot the party propaganda.

The Post prostitutes its pot position for the fascists and tries to cover the intellectual cess pool and waste that is NIDA by acting like it is a cake with a special cherry on top.

Tell us about the secret government. Do they correspond with you directly or do they assign mouthpieces that are removed one level from view? Bill Moyer's has two videos up on the Internet from circa 1987 on the secret government-

I would like to see her do a town hall meeting. The problem is the Nazis don't want any stinking questions and the talking script has already been memorized.

Jim Hightower talks about his new book, "Thieves in High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and it's Time to Take it Back" -

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