Instructor Insights

Course Overview

This page focuses on the course ES.S10 Drugs and the Brain as it was taught by Zak Fallows in Spring 2013.

This course is a multidisciplinary introduction to pharmacology, neurotransmitters, drug mechanisms, and brain diseases from addiction to schizophrenia. It is a pass/fail seminar offered through the Experimental Study Group.

Course Outcomes

Course Goals for Students

The goal of this course is to teach students how drugs act in the brain and how drugs are relevant to diseases such as addiction, depression, and schizophrenia. Another major goal is to share interesting tidbits of information showing how drugs are related to current events, physics, chemistry, biology, evolution, economics, and politics.

› Read More/Read Less

By the end of the class, students should understand what neurotransmitters are. Students should be able to list a number of neurotransmitters and their roles in the brain, such as GABA, dopamine (DA), serotonin (5-HT), and norepinephrine (NE). Students will learn the various mechanisms by which drugs affect neurotransmitters, such as boosting/inhibiting synthesis, boosting/inhibiting synaptic release, inhibiting synaptic reuptake, inhibiting breakdown, stimulating receptors (agonism), and blocking receptors (antagonism). Students will learn why injecting heroin is more addictive than snorting it, why amphetamine (Adderall) is effective for ADHD, and why cocaine is so bad for your heart.

Possibilities for Further Study and Future Careers

This course often encourages students to take introductory psychology courses (like 9.00 Introduction to Psychology) or introductory neuroscience courses (like 9.01 Introduction to Neuroscience). This course is popular with premed students, and many students say that it increases motivation to go to medical school. At least three former students are now in medical school.

Instructor Interview

Below, Zak Fallows describes two particular features of ES.S10 Drugs and the Brain.

  • There were several optional Drug Movie Nights. We would eat snacks and watch a drug-related movie such as Trainspotting. After the end of the movie (I would never pause in the middle, that’s heresy), we would talk about aspects of pharmacological science that came up in the film. For instance, Trainspotting features femoral vein injecting, so we talked about how long-term IV drug use damages veins and makes it harder to find suitable injection sites. The femoral vein is unique because it gets easier and easier to hit with a needle as it becomes damaged, but femoral vein injecting is very dangerous.
  • I made a special quiz website just for this course. The quizzes each take 5 minutes or less, and you get a grade immediately upon completion of the quiz, showing exactly which answers were wrong and explaining why they were wrong.

Curriculum Information



Requirements Satisfied



This course has been offered four times so far, in Spring 2009, Spring 2010, Spring 2013, and Spring 2014.  The course will likely take place again in Fall 2014. 

Student Information


19 students

Breakdown by Year

Approximately 1/6 freshmen, 1/6 sophomores, 1/3 juniors, and 1/3 seniors.

Breakdown by Major

A range of science and engineering majors.

Enrollment cap

Enrollment was capped at 20 students and listeners. In Spring 2013, 38 students expressed a strong interest in enrolling in the course, and enrollment was granted on a first-come-first-served basis. From Spring 2014 going forward, the instructor will use a random lottery to determine enrollment. 

How Student Time Was Spent

During an average week, students were expected to spend 6 hours on the course, roughly divided as follows:

In Class

  • Mandatory attendance
  • 12 sessions total, each lasting two hours
  • Lecture-based with questions and discussion strongly encouraged
  • Occasional short quizzes

Out of Class

  • Optional readings
  • Occasional, brief assignments
  • Optional Drug Movie Nights

Course Info

Learning Resource Types

grading Exams with Solutions
notes Lecture Notes
co_present Instructor Insights