Dr. Nora Volkow on Addiction: A Disease of Free Will

Dr. Nora Volkow on Addiction: A Disease of Free Will

[APPLAUSE] [Dr. Nora Volkow Speaking] Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure. It’s
an honor. It’s a privilege for me to be here with all of you and to celebrate all
of the fellows. And I want to thank the APA and Dr. Summergrad for giving me the opportunity
to share this moment with you. I devoted all of my life to study the effects
of drugs in the human brain. To try to understand what is it that they do to our brains that
in some people that are vulnerable that leads them to the complete loss of control with
severe catastrophic consequences. But, before I actually go into that and what
I’ve learned I want to share with you. I want to share a personal story that perhaps
can help you put it in perspective. As Dr. Summergrad mentioned, I was born in
Mexico City, and many, many years ago, when I was five or six years old, I remember having
dinner with my family, with my parents and my three sisters, and there was a man that
came to deliver a telegraph to my mother. I remember my mother crying after she read
the telegraph. I had never seen my mother cry, and I wanted to console her. But she
did not want us to see her cry, and she left the room and locked the door behind her. The
next morning, my father told us that the father of my mother had died. It was many, many years later, when I had
gone to medical school, when I had completed my residency training in psychiatry, when
I had already been working for many years in brain imaging to investigate what drugs
do to our brains and how we become addicted. At the time when my mother was dying of cancer,
she called me and said, “Nora, I need to tell you something I have never spoken to
you about.” And she told me that my grandfather, her father, had been an alcoholic, and that
in his distress at not being able to control his strong urges to drink alcohol, he had
killed himself. And I was taken aback by this, because I never
knew my grandfather was an alcoholic and I had always thought that he died from cardiac
complications. But I was also taken aback by the fact that my mother had kept this a
secret from me, even though she knew that my professional life was devoted to trying
to understand what drugs do to the brain. She had heard me speak of addiction as a disease
of the brain. So I wondered how I had miscommunicated, how could I have not made her realize, that
it was okay to speak about addiction. And then as I think about these words I’ve
gone over many times in my brain, and I realize that describing addiction as a brain disease,
describing addiction as a chronic brain disease, is sort of a theoretical concept. Say that
you have two parents with a very sick child, and they go to the hospital, and the doctor
says, “Your child is in a coma because he has diabetes.” And he explains to them that
diabetes is a disease of the pancreas, a chronic disease of the pancreas. This does not explain
why that child is so severely ill. What explains it is the understanding that the cells in
the pancreas can no longer produce insulin, and we need insulin in order to be able to
use glucose as an energy source, so without it, the cells in our body are energy-deprived—which
explains why this child is so sick. So when we speak of addiction as a chronic
disease of the brain, what does it mean? How does it help us explain the devastating changes
in behavior of a person that’s addicted, where even the most severe threat of punishment
is insufficient to have them stop taking drugs, where they are willing to give up everything
they care for in order to take a drug? How does “a dysfunction in the brain” help
us understand that? Well to start with, we’ve known for many
years that all the drugs of abuse that produce addiction, all of them, whether it’s legal
or illegal, all of them increase dopamine in brain reward regions, activating them—and
that, in turn, motivates our actions. Which explains why behaviors that are rewarding
have been used by nature in order to ensure that we survive, as an individual, and as
a species. That is why food is so rewarding. That’s why sex is rewarding so we can survive
and procreate. Drugs hijack that system. So it made perfect sense that one of the first
theories regarding why a person that’s addicted will take drugs was because in them their
brains was much more sensitive to the rewarding effects of drugs. In other words, in them
the drugs will produce much larger increases in dopamine than in a person that was not
addicted. Which will then explain their enhanced motivation for taking the drug. Except that the research shows that was not
the case. In fact, it showed that the opposite appeared to be true, that people who are addicted
to drugs, showed much lower increases in dopamine when they were given the drug, than those
who were not addicted. This was completely counterintuitive. It was counterintuitive.
You’re addicted. The addicted person has less increases in dopamine with a drug and
we are saying that the ability of drugs to increase dopamine in reward regions is why
we take them? So why would an addicted person even bother
to take the drug? As counterintuitive as this may seem, it was
actually very consistent with what we had started to learn about how the dopamine cells
in our brains responds to reward. This was actually a very, very unexpected finding.
It was first reported by Wolfram Schultz, who showed that in animals, when you give
an animal a reward, their dopamine cells fire, but with repeated administration of that reward,
the dopamine cells stop firing to that reward. But instead, fire when they get exposed to
the conditioned stimuli that predicts the reward. What is a conditioned stimuli? A conditioned
stimuli is that one that has been associated by its temporal sequence or by its spatial
presence with the actual experience of the reward, and this conditioned stimuli by itself
increases dopamine. When we increase dopamine that activates the motivation and drive that
leads you to want to consume that particular reward. Now, things when we look at them scientifically
retrospectively can make a lot of sense and when I think about this particular finding,
I just marvel at the extraordinary design of nature. Why do I say this? I say this because
increasing dopamine in reward regions is what motivates our behavior. What nature is aiming
for us to do is to ensure that we do the behaviors that will allow us to survive. In the case
of food, to consume it. But it wants you to be motivated to engage in the behaviors that
will allow you to get the food so you can consume it. So, by being conditioned, you will engage
that motivational system that is anticipating to receive a reward so that you can ensure
to do the behaviors and procure the reward. This is exactly why people that are addicted
to drugs have the enhanced motivation to take them because they have been conditioned. They
have been conditioned to the place where they take drugs. They have been conditioned to
the dealer that sells them their drugs, to the friends with whom they get high. They
have been conditioned to the emotional state that precedes the anticipation of getting
that drug. This drives their behavior. But addiction does not end there in the reward
motivation conditioning system. Drugs, by their chemical nature, activate dopaminergic
pathways and the repeated administration of these drugs triggers neural adaptations
on those pathways rendering them much less sensitive to normal physiological stimuli.
But the dopamine pathways are not limited as I say to reward and motivation. In fact,
in psychiatry for many years we already knew that the dopamine system was fundamental in
the function of the prefrontal areas of the brain. In studies, first of all, by work in part
by Dr. Patricia Goldman-Rakic, we’re actually trying to understand the role of dopamine
in Schizophrenia and was able to document that it is indispensible for the proper function
of the prefrontal areas in our brains that enable us to exert executive function, self-control,
self-regulation, working memory, decision-making, and judgment. More recent work has shown that
disrupted dopaminergic signaling into the prefrontal cortex helps us explain the impulsivity
in patients that suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. We have also learned, in part by research
in other psychiatric diseases, that the dopamine system is also extraordinarily important in
regulating the function of limbic areas of the brain, such as the amygdala and the hippocampus,
that are processing emotions, that are processing our reaction to stressful stimuli. We have
known of their involvement in Schizophrenia, and more recently we have also come to recognize
their fundamental role in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, where again, just as in addiction,
dopamine enables that conditioning. Conditioning in this case to a negative stimuli in contrast
to conditioning to a rewarding stimuli. All of these pathways get disrupted by the repeated
administration of drugs. So what is the clinical significance? Dopamine enables us to regulate our behavioral
choices, our ability to change our behavior when the environment changes so that we can
optimize our actions to sustain effort, to resist immediate rewards, to delay gratification,
to be able to conceive a goal for our future, and to carry it through. Drugs disrupt that. But these networks that are disrupted by drugs
do not belong uniquely to addiction. As I already mentioned, they contribute to the
psychopathology of multiple psychiatric diseases. I mentioned Schizophrenia, ADHD, Post Traumatic
Stress Disorder, among others. Which of course gives us an explanation about why these individuals
with mental illness are more vulnerable to taking drugs. Because the dopamine enhances
the effects of drugs, this will temporarily relieve some of the symptoms. The problem
is that with repeated administration it will downregulate their function, exacerbating
the clinical presentations of the patients. It also highlights to us as we think of addiction
as a disease of multiple networks being disrupted, that our therapeutic approaches should follow
a multi-prong strategy. We should aim to enhance the motivation for other non-drug behaviors
in addicted people so that they have alternative actions. We should aim to strengthen prefrontal
cortical circuits so that they can exert cognitive control over their desires, their emotions,
so that they can predict situations where they may be at greater danger of taking drugs
and avoid them. Interventions to decrease the strength of condition stimuli; to decrease
the enhanced sensitivity to stressors, to improve their negative emotions, so we can
help them and prevent them from relapsing. I think a lot and I go back a lot to that
conversation with my mother, and I always of course wonder what did I miss. I missed.
Of course I failed because she kept the story of her father a secret from me. But I also
realize that her shame or her fear, was not just because my grandfather had been an alcoholic,
but because he had committed suicide. He had committed suicide out of hopelessness and
helplessness at the inability to control the strong urges to drink, and then relapse, and
the inability to stop taking the alcohol, and then relapse again, and again, and again,
until there was one last moment of self-hatred, and he killed himself. This should have not happened. But, it’s
too late. My grandfather had died. My mother died thirty five years later*… and it’s the past.
It’s my story and I live with it. But I wanted to share it with you so that this does
not happen to our future patients. So that this does not happen to our current patients.
We psychiatrists have an obligation to treat substance use disorders in our patients. Whether
they are by themselves, or as they frequently emerge comorbid with other mental illnesses,
you can treat substance use disorders, and in so doing, you will improve the outcomes
of the patients, for the substance use disorder, but also the other comorbid psychiatric disease.
You will decrease the suffering in the families and the health care system will win. All of the averted cost associated with adverse
medical consequences, averted cost associated with accidents, averted cost from criminal
behavior… if we in psychiatry embrace addiction as a chronic disease of the brain, where the
pathology is the disruption of the areas of the circuits that enables us to exert free
will. That enables us to exert free determinations. Drugs disrupt these circuits. The person that is addicted does not choose
to be addicted; it’s not a choice to take the drug. Many times they take it and they’ll
say it’s not even pleasurable. “I just cannot control it.” Or they’ll say, “I
have to take the drug because the distress of not having the drug is so difficult to
bear.” If we embrace the concept of addiction as
a chronic disease where drugs have disrupted the most fundamental circuits, that enable
us to do something that we take for granted—make a decision and follow it through—we will
be able to decrease the stigma, not just in the lay public, but in the health care system,
among providers and insurers. So that patients with mental illness do not have to go through
obstacles to obtain the evidence-based treatments, so that they don’t have to feel that shame,
they don’t have to feel inferior, and perhaps we will be able to feel empathy for a patient
suffering from a disease we call addiction. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE]


  1. “Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behaviour and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.” – Terence McKenna

  2. Hi, just wondering if there is a mistake in the subtitle of Dr. Volkow's speech (I am sorry that I do not have a microphone in my computer at the moment).

    According to the subtitles,
    in the beginning, it said that Dr. Volkow's grandpa died when she was 5 years old (i.e. when her mother received the news from a telegraph). However, in the end, it said that her mother died of cancer 5 months after her grandpa's death (i.e. Dr. Volkow would have been 5.5 years old). It also said it was many many years later when Dr. Volkow had received her medical degree and training in addiction and when her mother told her about the truth of her grandpa's death.

    A 5.5-year-old had a medical degree? Or did I misunderstand anything in Dr. Volkow's speech?

  3. Excellent, thank you Nora. God Bless you during your own healing. This will help my lectures on Addiction and The Brain.

  4. Dr Nora is my hero! I was introduced to her through the Charlie Rose Brain Series and she never ceases to amaze me with her analysis of the addictive brain. I have struggled with addiction to many things and her research seems spot on. I only hope that it disseminates worldwide…quickly. No need to keep studying it, she's nailed it, now let's get going!

  5. Today is the first time hearing Dr. Volkow speak and more so on addictions of drug abuse and how it can destroy brain functioning. I have a similar story about my brother's death the secret the shame that was kept from me for years. My goal today is to help people understand the story and how taking drugs robs a person of there life. In closing, I will remember Nora and the grandfather she never knew

  6. Dr Nora Volkow , it is a shame that you have not taken upon your self the time  to improve your diction while speaking in English. You sure know it that your English speaking is LOUSY. There are thousands of experts over the country who are specialist to do it i.e. to train you in English Speaking. It is a question of paying about $120 for each practice. So why don't you do it? Please don't wait!

  7. Dr. Nora is truly sincere with her profession and her passion is even paired with compassion for those who are unable to decide for themselves…

  8. One who is smart enough doesn't need much scientific evidence on how drugs affect the brains.. we see evidence along the streets everyday.. ONLY FOOLS ARE NOT CONVINCED.

  9. If Doctors had even an ounce of her passion and compassion to help people with mental health issues we all would be in a better place today.. Years ago I was very sick and suffering, I went to a doctor and told my story to him, I pleaded with him for help, he said to me " Here is some Librium, take it when it gets really bad" then he left the exam room, that was it, he was done with me..
    How can a medical professional justify this??? Why are Doctors allowed to be so limited to textbook practices?? Its unethical and This woman Dr. NOra Volkow is a blessing from God..

  10. So porn gambling video games biting your nails masturbation YouTube Facebook are all brain diseases . before you discredit look closer that means 90% of all humanity's disease ridden and the dopamine happened more right before taken the drug not during or after these arent theories

  11. Wow this conference is AMAZING, congratulations Dear Doctor Nora Volkow for sharing with us all that great information.

  12. This   woman is a remarkable hero for  the  addictions  world. She  places addictions in the  context of  a disease of the  brain.   This  is a huge step which is becoming more  mainstream. With this information it makes access to treatment less stigmatizing.     I   include this link in all my  trainings!   thank you  Dr  Volkow!

  13. You are really telling the truth, last year where I live I had 5 friends that ODd on Heroin mixed with Fyntanal they was used to doing Heroin that wasn’t mixed earlier in there lives, but each one decided to buy more Heroin at different times this past year 2017 and got Heroin mixed with Fyntin and Tried it and when the Heroin hit in there blood stream so did the Fyntinal and they were Gone for good. I were friends with them thru there Parents, I was a lot older than the ones that ODd but a few years younger than there parents and this is how I became friends with them. I was in my 20s when they were born and in a small town like mine population around 1300 you get to know these kids from them growing up, but when they became adults I lost ties with them and i never knew about them until I had a couple lite Strokes and Diabetic so I was always home because I was on disability and that’s when the first one stopped up to my home then eventually the rest did one by one. And they said they liked to shoot up pills especially Dilaudids 8mg and 4mg then when the pills ran out they moved onto Heroin they even got me to try it but I was going to a Dr that got me hooked on lortabs, and Norcos and I wanted to stop so I found a Dr that was in with a clinic that prescribed Suboxone and Subutex. Which I tried the suboxone and it messed with my diabetes so they put me on Subutex for around 2 3/4 years 8mg 3xday I tried to get them to go see this Dr I had found I wasn’t going thru Hell into withdraws on the Subutex but none would come to see this Dr. A lot of people will say I was just supplying one Drug for Another but that’s not right the Drs that Prescribe Suboxone And Subutex taper you down slowly it can take over 3 to 4 years or more but it can be done without no withdraws. After seeing my Dr that had me on the Subutex sent me a letter in September saying he would be quitting the clinic and would refer me to another Dr at the clinic the following January but at my last appointment in September he told me of this new Dr and I asked if this new Dr would change the meds that he had me on, he promised me no because I was doing so great on them, and said he would note it in my file, oh he also had me on colonipin 1/2mg 3 x day but I only took 2 pills and saved the 3 rd in a bottle. I have been on colonipin almost 18 years now and it would be best to leave me on them than to take me off it would be a real life in Hell trying to come off of them I probably would have killed myself if they took me off my colonipin I have PTSD Battling severe Panick attacks almost every night until the Dr put me on those, I also was depressed and he had me On Zoloft 100 mg 1x day and Lyrica 325 Mg 2 x day and before he left the clinic that each month when I needed refills on my meds to call the clinic and they would call them in at a pharmacy close to me until I had my appointment with this New Dr. the months went by and in January the day before my appointment tho new Drs nurse called me and said the New Dr had been looking thru my file and wanted me to go on Suboxone and stop the Subutex which when I first went to this clinic I had to go to my Diabetic Dr and have her write out a letter that I needed to stay on the Subutex. And I was to stop my colonipin and Zoloft and my Lyrica I told the nurse that the Dr that quit promised me that the New Dr would not change my meds, she said he promised everyone that. Then she said if I did not want to do what the New Dr told me that they would give me a 1 month supply of the meds that the Dr who had quit had me on and I would need to find another Dr and I had to go with this or would get very sick for a long time especially with my diabetes and being on the colonipin for so long. But I could not find another Dr in my whole state who would prescribe me my meds or they were full and I could be put on a waiting list. I told my family Dr about this and she said that what they did to me was Cruel and Very Unethical so I called the clinic after the 1 month supply they gave me ran out and said I couldn’t find another Dr so far and could they give me another months supply of my meds she said no I told her what my family Dr said and she said so what so I started getting mad and told her I was going to turn the whole clinic into the News Channels and she said go ahead and hung up the phone on me, but I never told the News, but seeing what they done and my Dr that quit done they abandoned me and I never done anything wrong I passed every Drug test. And went to there counseling and the best is the Dr I had was only a CASH ONLY DR it cost each month $300 and I was only in his office around 8 minutes at the most my mother always went with me and counted the minutes. And the counseling cost $150 each month and I am on disability and only get $1400 a month and had to drive 90 miles each way. So now since they done this to me I am back on drugs and don’t want to be but what choice did I have that they gave me also I was almost off of the Opiates and then they did this to me. I know if my pain management Dr had not gotten me addicted I wouldn’t be in this place and it’s my fault also but these cash only Drs and Clinics need somewhat of a close inspection on there practice they should never deny a patient that has been going there for as long as I had to just let me go without even tapering me down from some of the most addictive drugs around. Also I really miss the friends I lost sometimes it really makes me mad or upset that they done this and it’s starting to be like this everyday for me because I have no one in the past year and half stop into my home to visit me and it gets lonely

  14. Bravo, more of this needs to be in our schools and our Villages, powerful message of true findings and study! This is vital information that must stop being stigmatized!!!

  15. In less than 4 weeks the 2019 National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week will start 1/22 / 1/27. I now have a community group to work with in conjunction with NIDA to help SHATTER the myths about alcohol use and abuse. Dr. Volkow your message is powerful thank you.

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