Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences

POPLHLTH 212 - Bio-behavioural Aspects of Drug Use

15 Points 

Semester 2



An introduction to the ways drugs exert their effects on the body, why drug dependence (addiction) occurs and what factors may predispose individuals to the development of drug dependence, including the aetiology of drug dependence and ways in which the study of bio-behavioural aspects of drug use has influenced public health interventions to reduce drug dependence.


Drug misuse and dependence is responsible for causing a significant amount of individual and societal harm. In particular the costs of treatment and crime related activities are a significant burden to society. The aim of this course is to provide an introduction to some of the important mechanisms thought to be responsible for people misusing and/or becoming dependent on certain substances as a pretext to understanding the broader problem of drug misuse in society. This discussion is complex, and so while the focus is on the biological and behavioural mechanisms purported to cause or are related to drug dependence, by necessity, there will some discussion around social and individual factors as well.

The focus is on addictive drugs (both illicit and licit), and all the major classes will be covered – including opioids (morphine, heroin, methadone), sedative-hypnotics (alcohol, benzodiazepines), psycho stimulants (nicotine, amphetamines (P), cocaine), marijuana, and the hallucinogens (ecstasy, LSD, PCP). The short term and long term effects of these selected drugs of abuse are discussed. Finally there will be an introduction to a public health approach to the treatment of drug dependence. During tutorials you will have an opportunity to engage in discussion about current and interesting aspects concerning drug use or dilemmas that affect society. 

While this course does not have any pre requisites it will be expected that you are familiar with fundamental biological concepts covered in relevant NCEA or stage one courses that have a medical or biological basis. 

This paper would benefit anyone interested in pursuing a career in health research, mental health and substance abuse treatment services.

Key course objectives

By the end of the course, students will be able to: 

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the main biological and behavioural mechanisms thought to contribute to the development of drug dependence

  • Demonstrate an awareness of the complexity and interaction of biological, psychological and social factors in the development of drug dependence

  • Demonstrate an appreciation of the underlying tenets of a public health approach to the treatment of drug dependence

  • Take positions within theoretical debates and demonstrate an ability to argue for them

Course structure

The course has two one-hour lectures and one one-hour tutorial most weeks.

Lectureand tutorial schedule


Lecture Topic

Tutorial Topic


Introduction: course overview

No tutorial


Setting the scene: Drugs & Drug Classes - I


Setting the scene: Drugs and Drug classes - II

Impact of drug use – what drugs are responsible for causing most harm?


The Nervous System 1: Gross structure of the CNS


The Nervous System 11: The PNS

The gateway theory of drug use. Can this theory account for the progression from soft to hard drugs?


The role of genetics in drug use


Mechanisms of Drug Action 1: Receptors

No Tutorial 


Mechanisms of Drug Action II:  Neurotransmission


Bio behavioural processes  underlying dependence I:- Brain Reward

Review of lecture material 


Bio behavioural processes  underlying dependence II :Learning Theory


What happens to the drug in the body?: Principles of pharmacokinetics

Foetal alcohol syndrome – the high cost of alcohol use in pregnancy


Neuropharmacology of Drugs of Abuse I: Depressants – Alcohol


Mid-semester test 

The role of psycho stimulants in the treatment of ADHD- are we at risk of creating a new generation of addicts?


Neuropharmacology of Drugs of Abuse II:

Depressants continued - opiates and sedatives


Neuropharmacology of Drugs of Abuse III: Stimulants – amphetamines, cocaine

Does marijuana have a medicinal role?


Neuropharmacology of Drugs of Abuse IV: stimulants continued – nicotine and caffeine


Neuropharmacology of Drugs of Abuse V: Hallucinogens, marijuana and volatiles

Legal highs – should they be regulated or not ?


What’s current – legal highs 


The role of personality & social factors in drug use

No Tutorial


The role of expectancies in drug use


Drug abuse and Dependence – Features

No Tutorial


Models of drug dependence


Public health approaches to treatment



Overview of treatment responses/ Course review

Course assessment

  • Tutorial Report                                 15% 

  • Essay                                              30%

  • Mid Semester Test                            15%

  • Final exam                                       40%

Recommended readings and course materials

Readings will be set from the World Health Organisation Publication: 

WHO. Neuroscience of psychoactive substance use and dependence. World Health Organisation, Geneva 2004. ISBN 92 4 156235 8 freely available at http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/en/Neuroscience.pdf

Other readings may be set for each lecture and you will be expected to have read them. There is also a course materials page available through the Library website.  http://www.library.auckland.ac.nz/subjects/med/course-pages/poplhlth212.htm

Tutorial reading

For each tutorial a brief overview of the discussion topic will be made available that will be used to guide discussion. In addition one or more readings will be listed for your interest. 

Course Director