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The Effects of Drugs on the Brain

written by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/26/2015

Want to teach your students about how drugs affect the brain? This effects of drugs on the brain lesson plan goes over how different drugs affect various neurotransmitters and provides activities that you can use in the classroom.

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    Effect of Drugs on the Brain: Lesson Plan

    If you are teaching your students about the brain and the different neurotransmitters involved in its functioning, why not teach the effect What's Going On Here? of drugs on the brain? With this lesson plan, you may want to go over how drugs can be very dangerous for students' health and well-being. For example, point out that while these drugs can cause euphoria, they also have serious effects that can endanger a person's life. Statistics can be a helpful tool. For example, explain to students that in 2006, 1,742,887 visits to the emergency room in the United States resulted from drug use, which includes people who used alcohol, illicit drugs, prescription drugs, dietary supplements and over-the-counter medications (National Institute on Drug Abuse).

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    Drugs and Neurotransmitters

    Start the lesson by asking students what drugs they have heard of. As students answer, write down their responses on the board. Explain to the students that these drugs interfere with neurotransmitters in the brain (if you have not discussed neurotransmitters in class before, this lesson plan on the brain's neurotransmitters and this study guide on neurotransmitters for students goes over them). When going over the drug with the class, explain which neurotransmitters it affects and what the effects are with the drug. Making a chart on the blackboard can help students visualize the connection. Here are some drugs you may want to explore with your class:


    dopamine and norepinephrine (increase turnover)

    acetylcholine systems (decrease transmission)

    GABA systems (increase transmission)

    effects: impaired reaction time and coordination, drowsiness, coma (high dose)


    dopamine (cause release, block receptors, inhibit storage and destruction)

    effects: increased heart rate and blood pressure (short-term), aggressive behavior and restlessness (long-term)


    serotonin (causes release, blocks reuptake, depletes amount)

    effects: loss of inhibition, increased heart rate and blood pressure, sweating, chills, seizures


    GABA (reduces release → increase dopamine production)

    effects: drowsiness, slurred speech, dry mouth, vomiting


    serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine (blocks reuptake)

    effects: increased heart rate and blood pressure, anxiety, irritability

    Since there are many types of drugs that you can use for the effects of drugs on the brain lesson plan, you may consider doing groups of drugs and their effects, such as depressants (alcohol and benzodiazepines) and stimulants (amphetamine and cocaine).

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    To help students understand how these drugs affect the brain, you may want to use diagrams. The University of Utah genetics lab offers a video that shows the neurotransmitters at work when lab mice are affected by drugs. If you decide to teach the effects of drugs on the brain by group, you can do a project with the class. Break the class into groups and assign each group a drug or a classification of a drug, such as stimulants. Have each group put together a small presentation on how that drug affects the brain, and how the drug causes short-term and long-term damage to the brain.

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    National Institute on Drug Abuse: Drug-Related Hospital Emergency Room Visits

    University of Washington: Neuroscience for Kids – Alcohol

    University of Washington: Neuroscience for Kids – Amphetamines

    University of Washington: Neuroscience for Kids – MDMA (Ecstasy)

    McGill University (Canada): How Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters – Opiates

    McGill University (Canada): How Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters – Cocaine

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