Activity 1: Neurobiology of the brain—An introduction

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During the last few decades, dramatic breakthroughs have occurred in our understanding of the neurobiology of substance use disorders. In an excellent 1 hour video, Dr. Volkow sets the stage for understanding substance use disorders as a disease of the brain. This is from a lecture she gave at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

Dr. Voklow presents scientific evidence in support of the theory that substance use disorders are a disease of the brain; they generally begin in childhood or adolescence; and they are influenced by a collection of biological, environmental, and developmental factors.

Since broad concepts are important to consider, while you are viewing the video and doing the readings, try and identify three or four key points that interest you. Concepts you might want to pay attention to are the pre-frontal cortex, mesolimbic dopamine system, neuroplasicity, and immunotherapy. In addition, pay attention to the interrelationship between the brain, genetics, and the environment; the particular vulnerability of adolescence; and the current initiatives in the development of treatment vaccines. These key concepts are not the only ones, and they may differ in terms of their importance, depending on your existing knowledge and professional background.


  1. Prior to viewing and reading the material associated with this lesson, write down anything you believe or already know about the concept that “addiction is a disease of the brain.” If it is helpful, try and consider how this differs from the “addiction as a disease” model.
  2. If neurobiology is a new area for you, an introductory article from the gray (non-peer reviewed) literature—written for a lay audience—may be helpful; it can be found in Chapter 4 of Substance Abuse in Canada: Youth in Focus (2007).
  3. View the video: What Do We Know About Addiction? with Dr. Nora Volkow:


  4. Read Chapter 3 of your textbook: “The Neurobiology of Addiction: A Hedonic Calvinist View” by G. Koob.
  5. Read (available through TRU library): Blum, K., Chen, A.L.C., Giordano, J., et al. (2012). The addictive brain: All roads lead to dopamine. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 44(2), 134–143.
  6. For additional information on the dopamine system, view the video: Big Think Interview With Nora Volkow:


  7. Find someone to share (teach) the main concepts associated with the neurobiology of the brain and substance use disorders. This person might be a colleague at work, someone you have connected with in the discussion boards of this course, a friend, or fellow student from another class. To present this to a friend, you may want to make some key notes to yourself. However, the exercise of verbally sharing with, or teaching, someone else will clarify and cement the learning for you.
  8. How does this knowledge affect your perceptions of people with substance use disorders? The stigma associated with substance use disorders?