The Addictive Brain

Course No. 1668
Professor Thad A. Polk, Ph.D.
University of Michigan
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Course No. 1668
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Starting with psychology and neurology, look at the science behind how addictions take hold.
  • numbers Understand how your DNA and overall genetics may affect your likelihood to develop an addiction.
  • numbers Get an in-depth look at addictive substances and behaviors, including stimulants, depressants, and gambling.

Course Overview

Addiction touches us all. Whether it’s a friend who can’t quit smoking, a colleague afflicted with alcoholism, or a relative abusing prescription drugs, we all know someone who suffers from some form of addiction—we may even have an addiction ourselves. By some estimates, roughly one in four Americans might be considered addicts. On the other hand, many of us use substances such as alcohol recreationally, without suffering the physical or psychological symptoms of addiction. So what is the difference between drug use, abuse, and clinical addiction? What causes addictions? What happens when your brain is on drugs, and why do addicts behave the way they do?

Neuroscientists are beginning to answer these questions and more by examining the inner workings of the brain. Addiction is sometimes viewed as a failure of morality, character, or will. But neuroscience offers a very different picture—one that can inform how we, as individuals and as a society, treat addicts and the problems caused by addiction. Professor Thad A. Polk, an award-winning professor and researcher at the University of Michigan, shows you that addiction is a scientifically understandable problem that has its origins in neurobiology and genetics. The twelve eye-opening lectures of The Addictive Brain will change the way you think about addiction.

This course takes you through the psychology of reward, positive and negative reinforcement, and theories of learning. You’ll then review the field of genetics—including studies of twins and other investigations that offer biological insights into behavior. You’ll learn how neurotransmitters communicate information between brain cells and how they influence many of the activities of our bodies and minds—including the experience of pleasure and our ability to make sound decisions.

After exploring the myriad ways in which humans learn and how the brain drives our actions, you’ll delve deep to see what happens at a neural level when someone sips coffee, smokes a cigarette, drinks alcohol, snorts cocaine, and more. Investigating what happens when different drugs enter the brain, and the ways drug molecules induce pleasure and shut down our ability to make good decisions, provides real insight into the biology and even psychology of addiction. To give you a comprehensive overview, The Addictive Brain covers not only addictive substances, but also addictive behaviors such as gambling—all through the lens of the latest scientific research and analysis.

Examine the Brain on Drugs

Most of us have probably seen the old anti-drug commercial in which an actor compares your brain on drugs to an egg sizzling in a hot frying pan. That’s a powerful image, but it doesn’t tell us what actually happens when drugs enter your body and interact with neurochemical processes. For that, we turn to neuroscience, which draws a much richer and more interesting picture.

After giving an overview of what addiction is and how it changes the brain, Professor Polk reveals how some of the most common drugs interact with our brains: caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines, and opiates all have significantly different effects. Aided by many custom animations that illustrate the underlying processes, Professor Polk shows you how each drug binds to neural receptors to either excite or inhibit neurochemical communications. For example, you’ll learn how caffeine blocks receptors that are associated with drowsiness, cutting off the signals that normally make us want to sleep. You’ll also see how alcohol tends to inhibit neural transmission, producing a sedative and hypnotic effect.

Along the way, you’ll discover many other fascinating facts about drugs and the human body. For instance:

  • Inhaling smoke from a cigarette delivers nicotine to your brain in about seven seconds, faster than any other method of drug intake.
  • Marijuana binds to receptors in many different areas in the brain, which accounts for its wide-ranging effects on mood, memory, appetite, and sensory experience, as well as its potential medical uses.
  • Before it was banned, cocaine was considered a kind of wonder drug, and was even in the original recipe for Coca-Cola.
  • Endorphins released during a “runner’s high” bind to the same receptors as heroin, leading to a (much milder) form of euphoria.

Most surprising, perhaps, is the way unhealthy patterns of behavior can mirror chemical addiction. When you go inside the brain of a compulsive gambler, you’ll find the same neurological mechanisms as you find in drugs addicts—as well as the same pattern of tolerance and withdrawal. Professor Polk concludes the course with an examination of other addictive behaviors—junk food, pornography, video games—and considers the sources of pleasure and abuse.

Learn about Potential Treatment Options

Along the way, you’ll learn not only how these drugs affect us and why we become addicted, but also what can be done about addiction. Science may provide a clinical description of addiction’s mechanisms, but ultimately, addiction is a human challenge. Whether we ourselves suffer, or we know and care about someone with an addiction, knowledge is only the first step.

With each of the drug categories you’ll study, you’ll learn about treatment options, including:

  • pharmacological treatments to alleviate symptoms of withdrawal,
  • cognitive behavioral therapy to attack the source of cravings, and
  • support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous.

Depending on the drug, relapse rates can be high. Less than 10 percent of attempts to quit cigarette smoking succeed long term, which is similar to the quit rate for heroin. But understanding the underlying mechanisms of addiction can often help motivate an addict to seek treatment. Such an understanding can also lead friends and loved ones to see the addict, and their addiction, in a completely new way.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Addiction 101
    Begin your course by defining addiction," which is diagnosed based on characteristics such as abuse, dependence, and craving. Professor Polk then surveys the history of drug use, from ancient history through the development of synthetics in the 19th and 20th centuries. Finally, he reviews government regulation and the substantial costs of drug abuse, both to the individual and to society." x
  • 2
    The Psychology and Neuroscience of Reward
    Explore the brain's mechanisms for learning from reinforcement. You'll start with the psychological aspects, discovering the way humans learn by a series of trials and rewards. Then you'll find out what parts of the brain process pleasure, self-control, and craving, and see how the psychology and neuroscience of reward processing converge. x
  • 3
    How Addiction Hijacks the Brain
    Here you'll examine the ways addiction alters the brain by numbing the pleasure center, sensitizing the dopamine system, and inhibiting the prefrontal cortex. Combined, these altered brain functions lead to strong cravings and a reduced ability to control one's actions. This foray into neuroscience will forever change the way you think about addiction. x
  • 4
    Genetics: Born to Be an Addict?
    Investigate how people may be susceptible to addiction on a genetic level. Thanks to studies of twins and DNA analysis, scientists are homing in on the genes that predispose us toward addiction. While there is no single addiction gene," our DNA can significantly influence whether we become addicts." x
  • 5
    Your Brain on Drugs
    Shift your attention from the nature of addiction to the nature of drugs. Here you'll delve into the process of neurochemical transmission and see how drugs mimic this activity by binding to neural receptors. This process is responsible for everything from a drug's physical and psychological effects to its potency. x
  • 6
    Why We Crave Coffee and Cigarettes
    Caffeine and nicotine are two of the most common psychoactive drugs in our society. How do they work? How dangerous are they? After reviewing how each of these drugs affects the brain, and why nicotine in particular is so addictive, Professor Polk offers several strategies to quit tobacco use. x
  • 7
    Alcohol: Social Lubricant or Drug of Abuse?
    Alcohol is often discussed separately from other drugs, but as you'll discover in this lecture, alcohol affects the human body in many of the same ways. Take a close look at your brain on alcohol to explore dependence, withdrawal, and genetic susceptibility. Then review several treatment options for alcohol abuse. x
  • 8
    The Science of Marijuana
    Although there is no shortage of controversy around marijuana, whose legal status now varies from state to state, the science of this drug may surprise you. Through the lens of the neuroscientist, Professor Polk tours the effects, and the possible medicinal value, of marijuana. x
  • 9
    Stimulants: From Cocaine to Ritalin
    From the original recipe for Coca-Cola to treatments for attention deficit disorder, psychostimulant drugs have had remarkable uses. But they have also been dangerously abused in the form of crack cocaine, methamphetamine, and related drugs. Find out how stimulants work in the brain and why they can be so harmful. x
  • 10
    The Science of Poppies, Pleasure, and Pain
    Round out your survey of the world's major drugs with an examination of opium and its derivatives, from regularly prescribed painkillers like codeine and morphine to heroin, often considered the most harmful drug of abuse in the world today. Learn about the neurological effects and treatment options for opiate drugs. x
  • 11
    The Gambler's Brain
    Are drugs the only thing humans can get addicted to? What about behaviors? To answer this question, take a look at what happens inside the brain of a compulsive gambler. As this case study reveals, many of the same neurochemical processes of drug abuse, from genetic predisposition to dopamine release, also accompany addiction to behaviors. x
  • 12
    Junk Food, Porn, Video Games: Addictions?
    The course concludes with an exploration of other potentially addictive behaviors. Professor Polk argues that some artificial stimuli, junk food, pornography, and video games to name three, are supernormal," meaning that they actually activate the brain's reward circuit more strongly than natural stimuli do, leading to some of the same neurological effects as drug use." x

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What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Instant Video Includes:
  • Download 12 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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DVD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 120-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 120-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Thad A. Polk

About Your Professor

Thad A. Polk, Ph.D.
University of Michigan
Professor Thad A. Polk is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. He received a B.A. in Mathematics from the University of Virginia and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Computer Science and Psychology from Carnegie Mellon University. He also received postdoctoral training in cognitive neuroscience at the...
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Reviews

The Addictive Brain is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 95.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Informative Great teaching on addictions, how they are formed and why addictions are so difficult to overcome. I serve in jail and prison ministry. Many incarcerated individuals are there due to direct or indirect problems due to an addiction. It would be great if this course could be presented on, say, a 10th grade level of education making it easy for those incarcerated to follow and learn about addictions. I think this information could help them make better decisions and exercise their self will in overcoming a life of crime associated with an addiction.
Date published: 2020-09-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Once I Started I Couldn’t Stop Watching I found this course to be fascinating in ways that differed from some of my more traditionally academic classes. While I rarely watch more than one or two lectures at a time on a given day, I found myself watching all 12 lectures at a single sitting-something I have never done before. The lectures and the professor were so engaging and so relevant that I did not stop until the end.
Date published: 2020-07-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Insights into Addiction Who among us don't have demons that we wrestle with, and we all know people who struggle with addictions. I am a recovering cigarette smoker. This is an accessible discussion of the biological basis for addiction. It contains helpful information on the deep roots of addiction and points to strategies that can help people deal with them. Dr. Polk is an excellent presenter. I recommend this course to everyone.
Date published: 2020-06-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Scientific Presentation Professor Polk brings serious scientific knowledge along with easy to understand graphics to a subject that affects us all - either directly or through family and friends. I used this course as a review prior to taking medical exams on the neurobiology of addiction . It is sophisticated, accurate, and meticulous in detail. Prof. Polk is direct and informative, but is easy to listen to. I can't stress the value of the graphics enough. They make each drug's effect clear by dramatizing how various classes of drugs interact with specific receptors in the brain. (The Great Courses has come a long way from a "professor at a podium.") This is an excellent course and on an equal footing with medical lectures I have attended.
Date published: 2020-05-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thorough and comprehensive I neded to become well informed on this topic, and I now am. This course is very well done and presented by a well known expert in the field. Easily understood.
Date published: 2020-05-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Course! Professor Polk does an outstanding job in explaining addiction - which impacts all of us to some degree. The visual aids are tremendous.
Date published: 2020-03-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Complex subject made easy to understand Very clear explanation of brain changes associated with addiction. Very helpful in understanding others with addiction and helpful if you have struggled with these issues. These brain changes underlie addictions with drugs, smoking, and alcohol, but also explain more socially acceptable behaviors like excessive time spent on internet games. Speaker is very clear and easy to understand.
Date published: 2019-12-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very clear I bought this a few weeks ago and could not stop watching. Very informative and included all addictions. This would be a great documentary for the general public to understand the pull of addiction and be more sympathetic to the individual addict.
Date published: 2019-11-26
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