Brain Chemicals Trump Willpower in Addicts, NIDA Director Says

Understanding brain chemistry, not building up willpower, is the key to preventing adolescent alcohol and other drug addiction, according to Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA).

The Associated Press reported April 3 that Volkow said that adolescent brains are still developing and react differently to drugs than those of adults. Volkow, a researcher with a long history of exploring the brain circuitry involved in addiction, has been shifting some of NIDA’s research efforts toward examining how the brains of adolescents and people who don’t become addicted to alcohol or other drugs differ from the brains of those who do develop drug problems. “What is it that makes a person more vulnerable to take drugs or not?” said Volkow.

“Now we have Nora’s picture rather than a picture of fried eggs,” said Joanna Fowler, a former colleague of Volkow’s at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. “We can go beyond that knee-jerk picture of a brain to a real brain … If you can conceptualize (addiction) as a brain disease rather than a moral weakness or lack of willpower, you can more easily bring resources to bear.”

Former NIDA head Alan Leshner said Volkow has promoted the idea that addiction “has to be seen as a health issue as well as a criminal or social-justice issue. She has definitely moved neuroscience forward.”

Volkow said she always has been fascinated in the brain and issues of free will. She noted that the brain is not fully matured until the early 20s, with the frontal cortex — the brain’s cognitive and reasoning center — the last to be finished. Thus, for teens, “to stand up and say ‘I’m not going to do it’ is much harder than (for) an adult,” Volkow said.

Brain immaturity may also explain teen risk-taking and why scare tactics can backfire in drug prevention. “It is that notion of ‘I dare you,’” she said. “It may be appealing to an adolescent because they are seeking for danger in many instances.”