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Student drug awareness campaign begins with talk on the brain chemistry of addiction

Johns Hopkins University

October 13, 2017


Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Linda Gorman set the tone for her talk on drugs and brain chemistry Wednesday night with a clarifying statement.

"I'm not going to preach at you," she told the crowd of students at Goldfarb Gym. "I'm not going to tell you about the evils of drugs and alcohol. I'm not going to pretend you're not going to use some of these substances."

Gorman, a professor in JHU's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, stuck with science for the night, explaining how drugs—particularly alcohol, marijuana, and opiates—disrupt the brain's reward system.

Her talk was part of a new university outreach effort to raise awareness among students about issues related to drug and alcohol use, with a specific focus on health, safety, and science.

The Work Hard/Play Smart campaign will include other speakers, events, and promotional activities, including a visit from substance abuse expert Jason Kilmer of the University of Washington this spring.

Work Hard/Play Smart begins with the base assumption that Hopkins students are intelligent to begin with, says Toni Blackwell, JHU's senior associate dean of students. The campaign encourages students to apply that intelligence to their decisions about drugs and alcohol.

"We're trying to get our students to think a bit more about their own health and wellness, and to think about that in a more holistic and responsible way," Blackwell said.

Barbara Schubert, associate director of JHU's Center for Health Education & Wellness, or CHEW—the health arm of the Homewood campus Student Health and Wellness Center—said the campaign focuses on education, addressing issues including prevention, long-term consequences, drug interactions, and addiction.

Gorman's talk Wednesday focused on the latter topic, explaining in basic terms how the chemicals of drugs and alcohol can activate the brain's reward pathway in unnaturally "longer, faster, stronger" ways that feed cravings and addiction.

"We would rather use cocaine than eat food, even if we were starving," she said, "because our brain knows that the cocaine made us happier than when we ate food."