Unit 1: The Brain

Learning Objectives

  1. To learn how the brain functions, including the structures and pathways in the brain
  2. To understand the unique features of the adolescent brain and its vulnerability to addiction
  3. To understand the ways the brain reacts to drugs


Teachers should go through each unit and download the PowerPoint for class presentation. Teachers should also download the accompanying activities for in-class activities. Speakers' notes are embedded in the PowerPoint. Activities are meant to be printed for students before class begins.



Discussion Guide

Unit 1 The Brain Crash Course

A Quick Guide

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Overview of the Brain

While it is not within the scope of these lessons to discuss the structures of the brain, it can be important to familiarize yourself with the basic components of the brain and their functions in case additional questions come up. Here are some resources describing the basic structures within the brain and their functions.

The Teenage Brain

The teenage brain is undergoing important developmental processes. Their brain is creating many new connections that gradually get pruned away during adolescence to make way for “smoother processing” in adulthood. This process of ongoing development and pruning is why teenagers, in particular, are more susceptible to getting addicted to different substances.  Here are some additional resources on the teenage brain and why teens are more susceptible to addiction.

Neurons and Neuronal Communication

In the PowerPoints of this unit, we briefly discuss the components of the neuron, the communication cell of the brain, and how neurons communicate with each other in the body. Here are some additional resources to learn more about the process of neurotransmission (neuron communication).

Neurotransmitters Involved in Addiction

In the PowerPoints of this unit, we highlight the role of neurotransmitters dopamine and acetylcholine in nicotine addiction. Dopamine is released when we experience something pleasurable. Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter that is mimicked by nicotine. However, there are many neurotransmitters involved in the addiction process- here are some resources to learn more.

The Reward Pathway

We discuss the role of the “reward pathway” in the brain as one of the primary way drugs, such as cigarettes, can cause addiction. When someone smokes a cigarette, the nicotine in the cigarette “hijacks” the reward pathway to cause a release of dopamine. Since our body craves that release of dopamine, this can explain how people start to lose control over engaging in different risky behaviors. Here are some additional resources on the reward pathway.

Nicotine and Acetylcholine 

As mentioned above, nicotine mimics the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. It binds to receptors that traditionally bind to nicotine, impacting the action of acetylcholine in the body. To learn more about this nuanced process in the body, here are some additional resources.