Lesson “How Nicotine Affects the Teen Brain”

First published 2020. To view the latest Heads Up content, click here.

While student smoking rates have declined in recent years, e-cigarette use has risen—an alarming trend, because most vaping devices contain the highly addictive drug nicotine. Share the article “How Nicotine Affects the Teen Brain” to help students understand how nicotine is not only highly addictive but also can cause lasting effects on their brain. Then have students complete the “Vaping Health Risks” presentation activity to guide them to conduct deeper research into specific vaping risks and help spread the word to their peers.


Science, Biology, Public Health, English Language Arts, Health/Life Skills



* Determine central ideas or themes of a text; summarize key supporting details


* Analyze how two or more texts address similar topics


* Present information and supporting evidence appropriate to task, purpose, and audience


* Information Processing


* Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

Cross-Cutting Concept

* Cause and Effect: Mechanism and Prediction



  1. Describe how the brain’s reward system works. (The brain’s reward system is activated when you experience something enjoyable, like laughing with friends. That causes a release of the natural chemical dopamine. Dopamine helps your brain note this activity as something that should be remembered and repeated.)
  2. What is addiction? (Addiction is a brain disorder that causes a person to continue to seek out and use a drug despite negative consequences in their lives.)
  3. Explain how using nicotine can lead to addiction. (When someone uses nicotine, it causes the brain to release dopamine. Nicotine causes a larger- and longer-than-normal release of dopamine. The surge in dopamine causes a strong reaction in the reward system, so the person feels a strong desire to use nicotine again. Over time, this leads to addiction.)
  4. Why are teens especially vulnerable to nicotine addiction? (The adolescent brain is still developing and won’t be fully mature until the person reaches their mid-twenties. Because it is still developing, the brain is more vulnerable to the changes caused by nicotine.)
  5. Explain one reason it can be challenging for someone who is addicted to nicotine to quit. (If someone who is addicted to nicotine tries to quit, they can experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, including depression and powerful cravings, that make it hard to stop.)
  6. What are some ways teens can help support a healthy development of their brains? (Don’t use drugs like nicotine. Take on new challenges that have a positive and stimulating influence on brain development, such as learning a new skill.)


  • Grades 6–8: Both conventional cigarettes and vaping devices are illegal for teens. Write an argument to support the existence of this law. Include supporting evidence.
  • Grades 9–10: How does the brain’s reward system reinforce certain types of behavior? Explain how this can have positive and negative effects on a person’s development.
  • Grades 11–12: Some people who use nicotine report using it because they think it helps them relax. Explain why, in reality, nicotine can have the opposite effect. Then, suggest healthier alternatives for relaxation.


Send students links or print copies of the student article and student activity, and instruct them to read independently. Share the reading-comprehension questions on a digital discussion board, on a video call, through email, or in a print packet, and have students respond online or in hard copy. When students have completed the student activity, presentations can be delivered over a class video call, through a prerecorded video clip, or by sharing links or attachments. Wrap up by having students share (digitally or in writing) 3–5 new things they learned or thought about in a new way as a result of their classmates’ presentations.

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