Drugs and the Brain: Why do People get Addicted?

Please note that this is last year’s version of the contents of the course. Information for Summer 2013 will follow very soon.

Dr Zoltan Sarnyai

Drug addiction is a major health and social problem all over the world. It ruins the physical and mental health of the addicted individuals, the lives of their families and places a very considerable burden on the society. Currently there is no effective treatment available to cure addiction. What do drugs do to the brain? What happens in the brain cells of the addicts? Why is it so difficult to stop taking drugs? Why is it so easy to relapse to drug use? Does the brain change in the course of the addiction? Is the ‘addicted’ brain different from a ‘healthy’ brain? How do drugs reshape structure and function of brain cells in the course of addiction?

In this course we will address these and many other exciting questions on drugs, brain and mind. This course will summarise our current knowledge on the neurobiology of addiction. It will provide basic information on the brain regions, neurotransmitters and intracellular signalling molecules involved in the addictive process. Furthermore, it will discuss how the major classes of drugs of abuse, such as psychostimulants (cocaine, amphetamine), opiates (heroin), alcohol, nicotine and cannabis (marijuana) affect brain function. The course will also provide an overview of the neurobiological theories aiming to explain addiction. The biology and the role of stress in different aspects of addiction will be explored. To conclude, we will review how normal adaptation is disrupted in the course of addiction leading to long-term or perhaps permanent changes in the workings of brain cells and circuits and how this may result in a disease state called addiction.

This course is aimed at: Biology, psychology, neuroscience majors as well as students considering medical school.

Pre-requisite knowledge required: Some background in neuroscience or cell biology will be advantageous.

Required Pre Arrival Reading:
To be compulsorily read before the start of the programme

  • Iversen, L.L., Iversen, S.D, Bloom, F.E. and Roth, R.H.; Introduction to Neuropsychopharmacology, Oxford University Press, 1 edition (29 Jan 2009)


Further Pre-Arrival Reading:
Strongly recommended, but not mandatory

  • Koob, G.F and Le Moal, M.; Neurobiology of Addiction, Academic Press, 2007
  • Nestler, EJ., Hyman, SE, Malenka, RC; Molecular Neuropharmacology: A Foundation for Clinical Neuroscience. 2nd Edition, McGraw Hill, 2008



  • 1 Final Exam: 45%
  • 1 Final Essay (2,500 to 3,000 words): 45%
  • 1 Participation, progess and attendance: 10%


Lecture Hours: 12 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar Hours: 8 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 10 hours)