The Addictive Brain

Discover the neural mechanisms that underlie the behaviors of addiction in this fascinating course taught by one of the top cognitive neuroscientists in the country.
The Addictive Brain is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 102.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Calm Insight into Emotional Issues This course is a scientific introduction into the areas of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and other stimulants, opioids, gambling, pornography, and junk food. Yeah, that’s a lot of toes to stomp on. Dr. Polk takes a measured, scientific, analytical approach to each of these controversial topics. He emphasizes that he does not give any medical advice and that if the listener wants to actually address any addiction, that listener should seek professional medical assistance. Thus, Dr. Polk addresses the psychology and the neurology (brain receptors, synapses, etc.) of addiction, not its treatment. Perhaps the biggest problem with this course is that the listener is most likely interested in just one or two of the addictions; the other lectures are wasted in a sense. I used the video version of the course. However, it would be acceptable to use it in an audio-only setting such as jogging or while commuting in a car or other transportation.
Date published: 2021-08-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative The presentation is excellent! I am a physician involved in caring for patients with a wide variety of addictions. This course has deepened znd expanded my knowledge greatly.
Date published: 2021-04-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Much better than expected I recently retired as a psychotherapist and substance abuse counselor. This series has been the most concise, understandable presentation about addictions and the brain. I wish I could’ve shared it with patients, many of whom would ask for a scientific explanation of their experience. It not only would have helped them understand, but also would help minimize judgment and especially self-judgment.
Date published: 2021-03-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good variety of topics related to addiction. I bought this course because I did the aging brain with the same professor and really enjoyed it. Even my husband was attracted to listening to the lectures. The professor is an excellent teacher. He is so clear and straightforward He uses good examples and shows so much knowledge of the topic.
Date published: 2021-01-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great clarity about the reality of addiction. Great clarity about the reality of addiction. I first bought this course for years ago and found it extraordinarily helpful. I have subsequently recommended it to or bought it for many people I know. So far everyone of them has found it extraordinarily clear and helpful. As a physician I know of no better concise description of and explanation of the addictive process.
Date published: 2020-12-27
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
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Addiction touches us all. By some estimates, 25% of Americans might be addicts. What happens when your brain is on drugs? Discover the neural mechanisms that underlie the behaviors of addiction, and see how drugs and activities like gambling can hijack the brain and lead to behavioral problems. Understanding addiction can motivate an addict to seek treatment, and can lead loved ones to see the addict in a new way.


Thad Polk
Thad Polk

Every aspect of our mental life is controlled by the brain. So if we ever hope to understand the human mind, and how it's affected by aging, by disease, and by drugs, then we need to develop a better understanding of the brain and the neural mechanisms that underlie cognition.


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 University of Pennsylvania.

Professor Polk's research combines functional imaging of the human brain with computational modeling and behavioral methods to investigate the neural architecture underlying cognition. Some of his major projects have investigated differences in the brains of smokers who quit compared with those who do not, changes in the brain as we age, and contributions of nature versus nurture to neural organization. Professor Polk regularly collaborates with scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas and at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, where he is a frequent visiting scientist.

Professor Polk regularly teaches on topics ranging from the human mind and brain, to cognitive psychology, to computational modeling of cognition. His teaching at the University of Michigan has been recognized by numerous awards, and he was named to The Princeton Review's list of the Best 300 Professors in the United States.

By This Professor

The Addictive Brain
The Learning Brain
Shocking Psychological Studies and the Lessons They Teach
The Aging Brain
The Addictive Brain


Addiction 101

01: 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.

34 min
The Psychology and Neuroscience of Reward

02: 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....

31 min
How Addiction Hijacks the Brain

03: 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....

33 min
Genetics-Born to Be an Addict?

04: 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....

32 min
Your Brain on Drugs

05: 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....

29 min
Why We Crave Coffee and Cigarettes

06: 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....

33 min
Alcohol-Social Lubricant or Drug of Abuse?

07: 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....

30 min
The Science of Marijuana

08: 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....

31 min
Stimulants-From Cocaine to Ritalin

09: 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....

32 min
The Science of Poppies, Pleasure, and Pain

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....

33 min
The Gambler's Brain

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....

32 min
Junk Food, Porn, Video Games-Addictions?

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....

35 min