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    Exploration of the neurobiological mechanisms and behavioural effects of a number of drugs. Also explores current New Zealand drug policy.

    Drugs are everywhere in our lives, from cold remedies to prescription pain killers to study aids and morning coffee to illicit psychoactive substances. Use and abuse of drugs is associated with enormous financial costs and personal burden. The objective of this paper is to explore the neurobiological mechanisms of action of a wide range of drugs and to examine how environmental factors impact the effects of drugs. We will also examine and critique New Zealand drug policy.

    About this paper

    Paper title Neurobiology and Behavioural Effects of Drugs
    Subject Psychology
    EFTS 0.0833
    Points 10 points
    Teaching period Not offered in 2024 (On campus)
    Domestic Tuition Fees ( NZD ) $723.96
    International Tuition Fees Tuition Fees for international students are elsewhere on this website.
    PSYC 476

    Entry into Psychology 400-level normally requires a major in Psychology, a B+ average or higher in Psychology 300-level papers, and a pass in PSYC 311 Quantitative Methods. We highly recommend that students have completed PSYC 310. Students from other universities must show evidence of an equivalent level of competence.

    For Neuroscience students, the prerequisites are met by completion of the requirements for a BSc in Neuroscience with an average grade of at least B+ in 300-level Neuroscience papers.


    Dr Ryan Ward

    Teaching staff

    Dr Ryan Ward

    Paper Structure

    The paper consists of lectures, in-class exercises, and class discussions.

    Lecture topics include:

    • Behavioural analysis of drug effects
    • How we adapt to drugs: Tolerance, sensitization, and expectation
    • Neurophysiology, neurotransmitters, and the nervous system
    • Alcohol
    • Caffeine and methylxanthines
    • Anxiolytics and sedative hypnotics
    • Cannabis
    • Tobacco and nicotine
    • Stimulants
    • Opioids
    • Antipsychotic drugs
    • Antidepressants
    • Hallucinogens
    • New Zealand drug policy

    In class exercises - these will be intended to engage the students in preparation for the course, and to help them participate in the day's class. Exercises may include but not be limited to:

    • Mini paper: Students are asked to take out a piece of paper and write as much as they know about a given topic.
    • Worst/Best: Students are asked to take out a piece of paper and to write what aspects of the lecture they understood the worst/best. They are then invited to turn to the student next to them and share their answers and explain the points of confusion to clarify for one another
    • Pop quiz: Students are given a quiz on the days reading material before class.
    • Take a side: Students must argue either for or against a position on a particular topic of relevance to the day's lecture.

    Analysis piece - The purpose of this assignment is to allow students to explore an issue related to models of drug abuse in more detail. Specifically, they will read opposing viewpoints on several different models of addiction, compare and contrast these viewpoints, and synthesize the information to come to their own conclusions.


    • In-class exercises: 5%
    • Analysis piece: 15%
    • Exam: 30%
    • Final Exam: 50%
    Teaching Arrangements

    Three hours once a week.

    The paper consists of lectures, in class exercises, and class discussions. Class meetings – consisting of lectures, discussions, and in class work, will be held once a week.


    To be advised. For further details contact Dr Ryan Ward

    Graduate Attributes Emphasised
    Scholarship, Communication, Critical thinking, Information literacy, Research, Self-motivation.
    View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.
    Learning Outcomes

    Students who successfully complete this paper will be able to:

    • Describe the neurobiological mechanisms of action of a range of different drug classes
    • Describe how features of the environment come to influence the effects of drugs, both physiologically and behaviourally
    • Describe the features of drug use and abuse (routes of administration, tolerance, addiction, withdrawal) and discuss biological processes involved in these features
    • Critically evaluate the New Zealand drug policy using scientific evidence to inform best-practice suggestions


    Not offered in 2024

    Teaching method
    This paper is taught On Campus
    Learning management system
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