Pick Your Poison: Mind-Altering Drugs, Malicious Microbes, and Medications main content.

Pick Your Poison: Mind-Altering Drugs, Malicious Microbes, and Medications

Mondays, November 4, 2013—December 9, 2013

Plastic gears of various sizes, shapes, and colors form the shape of a human brain.

The world is a pretty toxic place. We are surrounded by animals, plants, and chemicals that can poison us, though we usually take in our favorite toxins—coffee, chocolate, and ethanol—in non-lethal doses. What’s more, entire industries try to sell products that promise to improve or alter brain performance. But what happens to our brain chemistry when we use antidepressants, amphetamines, or caffeine? Why do we poison ourselves for pleasure, and why is it difficult to overcome substance addiction? Do animals take drugs? Participants in this exciting five-week course will gain a better understanding of which chemicals, and at what dosages, influence brain function and when we are most vulnerable to “poisoning” ourselves; unpack current scientific research around the topic; and receive resources that can inform decisions about long-term health.

SESSION 1. Pleasure, Pain, and Poison: Neurochemistry and Drugs (Monday, November 4)

Participants will be introduced to basic neurochemistry and will gain an understanding of how different types of prescription and recreational drugs affect the brain and behavior.

Guest Speaker: Robert S. Hoffman, MD, Professor of Emergency Medicine and Medicine, Chief, Division of Medical Toxicology, New York University Langone Medical Center

* Please note: there is no session on Monday, November 11 (Veterans Day)

 SESSION 2. Pleasure, Pain, and Poison: Alcohol (Monday, November 18)

Participants will learn about the effects of alcohol and dosage on the brain, body, behavior, and society.

Guest Speaker: Leonardo Pignataro, PhD, Assistant Professor at the Department of Anesthesiology and Department of Pharmacology, The College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University


SESSION 3. Microbes, Toxins, and You (Monday, November 25)

Participants will be introduced to the vast array of toxic microorganisms, and the different types of neurotoxic effects these organisms and environmental toxins can exert on our brain and nervous system when ingested.

Guest Speaker: Ira Breite, MD, Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine (Gastro Div), New York University Langone Medical Center; Gastroenterologist, Westside Medical Associates, LLP

SESSION 4. Aging, Oxygen, and Antioxidants (Monday, December 2)

Participants will learn about the effects of oxygen on our brain functions and its role in neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Guest Speaker: Margaret E. Rice, PhD, Professor at the Departments of Neurosurgery, and Neuroscience and Physiology, New York University Langone Medical Center 

SESSION 5. Venom to Drugs: Harvesting Nature's Deadliest Cocktail (Monday, December 9)

Participants will be introduced to a diversity of animal poisons and venoms, and will learn about their neurotoxic effects on the human brain and nervous system, and whether they can be used as therapeutic agents to treat pain and other ailments. 

Guest Speaker: Mandë Holford, PhD, Assistant Professor in Chemical Biology, Hunter College Department of Chemistry; Research Associate, Division of Invertebrate Zoology, American Museum of Natural History


The Museum greatly acknowledges The Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation, Inc. for its support to establish The Sackler Brain Bench, part of the Museum’s Sackler Educational Laboratory for Comparative Genomics and Human Origins, in The Spitzer Hall of Human Origins.