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Addiction: Genetics and the Brain

This collection of materials addresses the neurobiology of drug use and abuse at the molecular, cellular, and organism levels.

Addiction involves complex mechanisms that are only partially understood. Yet ongoing research in molecular biology, physiology, and genetics continues to reveal more about the mechanisms that drive drug use and abuse. This work, along with research in the psychosocial factors involved, informs programs for more effectively treating and preventing substance abuse.

Learning Goals
  • Drugs disrupt communication between neurons at the molecular level.
  • Drugs interfere with the brain’s reward and pain pathways, reinforcing repeated drug use.
  • Repeated drug use alters the physiology of neurons, increasing tolerance and the risk of overdose.
  • There is a genetic component to addiction.
  • Social factors influence drug use, addiction risk, and addiction treatment.

The resources on this page have been designed with educators in mind. They are meant to support, supplement and extend the concepts explored in the materials on the Learn.Genetics website, designed for students and the public.

Anatomy of a Neuron / Anatomy of a Synapse

In part 1, students label a diagram of a neuron with structure and function (use Make a Mad, Mad, Mad Neuron as a source). In part 2, they describe what is happening in a labeled diagram of a synapse (use Crossing the Divide as a source).

Use as worksheets for students to fill in as they explore the multimedia sources linked below. They may be used as a formative or summative assessment.

  • The parts of a neuron work together to receive and send signals.
  • Using neurotransmitters, neurons communicate with one another at a junction called the synapse.

15 minutes

Copies, individual student computers with internet access (if using the multimedia sources listed), headphones

Constellation of Protective Factors

In this poster-building activity, students place themselves at the center of a constellation. They surround themselves with the protective factors that they have (stars) and ones that they want to develop (planets).

Have students work individually

  • Protective factors decrease the likelihood of risk-taking behaviors, including drug misuse.
  • Individuals have the ability to increase their protective factors.

30 minutes

Large pieces of paper or poster board (one per student), glue, scissors

Copies of cut-outs (ideally on colored paper)

Constellation of Protective Factors (pdf)

Note: The protective factors listed in this PDF are generalized from a number of sources and appear to be broadly accepted. You may wish to:

  • Use factors that are consistent with other addiction prevention curricula that your students might be familiar with.
  • Use factors from the resources listed in the Risk Continuum pdf file, below.
  • Ask your students to brainstorm about protective factors. Discuss them as a class, and make a list for students to draw from.

Risk and protective factors do not necessarily cause or prevent disease themselves. Some are causative, and others are markers that are associated with healthy or disease states.

Jumpin' the Gap

Turn your classroom in to a giant synapse! Students take on the roles of key molecules and demonstrate communication between neurons. Includes clearly defined “job tags” and cut-out neurotransmitters and receptors that fit together like a lock and key.

Choose to model one or all scenarios: the reward pathway, cocaine and/or methamphetamine in the reward pathway, the pain pathway, opioids and naloxone in the pain pathway.

Use as a front-of-the room demonstration or assign to small groups. There are 12-16 “roles” for students depending on which pathway and drug extension you choose to model. Scale up or down as needed.

  • Neurons communicate with each other at a junction called a synapse.
  • Signaling between neurons requires the coordinated actions of vesicles, neurotransmitters, receptors, and second messengers.
  • After relaying a signal, neurons return to homeostasis.
  • Drugs disrupt synapses, affecting communication between neurons.

Plan 20 minutes for each scenario; add time for discussion.

Two 4–5 meter lengths of rope or masking tape, copies, string for job tags (optional)

Jumpin’ the Gap: Reward Pathway (pdf)
Includes roles for 12 students, plus 2 for cocaine and methamphetamine extensions

Jumpin’ the Gap: Pain Pathway (pdf)
Includes roles for 12 students, plus 4 for opioid and naloxone extensions

Pom-Pom Potential

Students take on the role of membrane proteins, moving pom-poms to simulate the action of so-dium and potassium ions during an action potential. This whole-classroom, kinesthetic, color-coded simulation helps students visualize how an action potential travels down a neuron.

Enact as a whole class, in a large open space

  • An action potential is an electrical signal generated by the movement of ions across the membrane of a neuron.

45 minutes

About 600 green pom-poms and 300 blue pom-poms

1 large bag of small candies (optional)

4 lengths of masking tape or rope (optional)

Risk Continuum

This whole-class kinesthetic activity demonstrates how genes and the environment together influ¬ence a person’s risk for drug addiction. It works with groups of 12 or more students, and it can be adapted to be used with other diseases that are influenced by both genes and the environment.

Enact as a whole class

  • Family history and genetics can help predict a person’s risk for developing drug addiction (or other diseases).
  • A person’s behaviors can increase or decrease their risk for developing drug addiction.
  • A person with a higher risk has a greater chance of having a disease, but they may not develop it.
  • A person with a lower risk has a lower chance of having a disease, but they still may develop it.

15 minutes

Copies of Behavior Cards (one per student)


The content here is based upon work funded by the Utah State Board of Education (2018/19) and a Science Education Drug Abuse Partnership Award (SEDAPA), from The National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health; Grant Number R25DA15461.

The contents provided here are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the funders.