BI scientists teach adolescents the realities of drug abuse

Popular movies, TV, and music are laden with references to drugs and alcohol, sending an unintended message to teens that substance use is exotic and prevalent. In reality, just one in ten adolescents use illicit drugs and 17% are binge drinkers, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Intervention is critical for giving curious young minds a reality check, but research clearly shows that telling kids to “just say no” is not enough. To address this problem, Brain Institute members created a scientifically based program, The Brain, Drugs and Addiction. The program was presented in October to 4th – 8th graders at the Madeline Choir School during Red Ribbon Week, a nationwide drug prevention campaign.

Brogan teaches the dangers of
prescription drugs

University of Utah participants included program organizer and Brain Institute associate director, Amy Davis, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and toxicology, Kristin Keefe, Ph.D., psychiatry instructor, Erin McGlade, Ph.D., and associate professor of anesthesiology, Shane Brogan, MB BCh.

Brogan, whose 6th grade daughter attends MCS, noticed that most drug programs don’t address prescription drug abuse, which causes more deaths than illegal street drugs. His role in the program was to raise awareness of the dangers of using prescription drugs incorrectly. “Because of my professional interest as a pain doc, I felt I had something to contribute,” he explained. 

The program began with a presentation about the pharmacological mechanisms of addiction, and how common drugs of abuse affect the developing adolescent brain. “During adolescence especially, a key developmental task is to figure out who you are as an individual and in a group, which for some includes experimenting with alcohol and drugs,” said McGlade. “My goal was to give the students a scientific perspective from which to make choices rather than, ‘Because I said so.’”

Fatal Vision goggles simulate vision impairment
experienced with high blood alcohol levels

The rest of the day was filled with hands-on activities, including the chance to touch a real human brain, an interactive video game simulating the effects of drugs, and a facilitated discussion about strategies to lead drug-free lives.

Arguably the students’ favorite activity was trying on Fatal Vision Goggles (the goggles and other neuroscience teaching tools are available through the Brain Institute Lending Library), which simulates vision impairment at four different blood alcohol content levels. The kids could barely contain their laughter as they lost their balance while attempting to walk in a straight line, or completely missed a partner’s hands while playing patty cake.

“I think it [the program] was a great way to get the conversation going. The kids were excited to talk to us about it and ask more questions,” said presenter and parent Celine Poppe. “At our house that night at dinner, it dominated the conversation.”


Students learn about drug effects
through an interactive video game

Real human brains teach anatomy
Last Updated: 3/14/13