Propofol on Trial: The Connection between GABA Impact on the Brain and a Super Star's Demise!

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Students will construct a viable and scientific argument as a prosecutor or defense attorney to substantiate their claims surrounding the Michael Jackson death case.

Big Idea

GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is regulated by anesthetics like Propofol. Students will decide who is responsible for the incorrect use of these medicines, the patient or the prescriber.


Lesson Background & Justification:

    Neurotransmitters are endogenous chemicals that transmit signals across a synapse from one neuron to another or target neuron. Gamma-Amino Butyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid which acts as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system that acts to inhibit nerve transmission in the brain, and consequently calming nervous activity. Once synthesized from glutamate in the cell body and stored in vesicles, it is released from the presynaptic neuron and executes a conservative set of cyclic activities which include: a) the induction of a response in the receiving cell, b) re-absorption into the dispensing cell and/or c) processing by specialized proteins to ascertain adequate levels of the neurotransmitter for subsequent potentials. The overall goal is to evoke an inhibitory and sometimes excitatory response of its receiving cell. In this lesson, students become familiarized with the standard neurotransmission activities of the GABA circuit and the exacerbating effect of the tranquilizer Propofol on this system. Furthermore, students learn to argue a legal position in the Michael Jackson/Dr. Conrad Murray case using the content acquire within the lesson. 

Prerequisite Knowledge: It is recommended that students be familiar with the structure and function of a neuron, the concept of neurotransmission and the action potential mechanism. 

Lesson Preparations:

 In the effort to prepare for this lesson, I make certain that I have the following items in place: 

a) A class set of GABA clue cards (1 lab per student pair).

b) Student lab books and poster paper.

Common Core and NGSS Standards:

MP3-Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

W.11-12.1a-Introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s), establish the significance of the claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that logically sequences claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.

Standards Rationale:

      Argumentation in the science classroom is an essential skill to help students grapple with  tough concepts and to strengthen explanations of the explored material. When students construct their own arguments to support the material engaged in and/or critique arguments of other students, the grow in meaningful forms of scientific practices. They work to make sense of scientific phenomena rather than working to replicate the understandings communicated by a textbook or other authority. Collectively, engaging in this type of discourse can alleviate the pressure of teachers feeling fully responsible for attaching meaning to information presented in the classroom. In this lesson argumentation is used in concert with other science practices in the classroom to promote students’ reasoning and understanding of core science idea presented (explaining the function and inhibition of the neurotransmitters GABA).


10 minutes

Section Primer: 

        Propofol is a short-acting, intravenously administered anesthetic agent. It slows the activity of the nervous system and when administered can enhance the inhibitory actions of the neurotransmitter GABA. In this section of the lesson, students are introduced to Propofol by way of the trial that made it a household name; The Michael Jackson Death Case. They use the information presented in the trial to activate their curiosity of the drug's chemical and biological effects and ultimately to use the aforementioned to develop an opinion regarding the responsibility for the drug's administration (patient or doctor). 

 Section Sequence:

a) Slide 1: Ask: "How many of you are familiar with the Michael Jackson death case?" Solicit students to share out on their information to the class. Share that this case made a drug that interacts with one of our major neurotransmitters a household name and ask if anyone knows the name of the drug. Take responses and say "let's see if we are correct in that assertion and our facts about the case altogether".  

b) Slide 2: Play the video below. Post-video share with students that they are going organize what they know and learned about this case. Fill in the K and L sections of the KWL chart as students respond to your solicitations for chart information.  



20 minutes

Section Sequence:

a) Say: "As I mentioned earlier, this case introduced the drug Propofol to a great deal of citizens just by its association with a prominent figure."  Share that this also made people curious about how the drug works so that they could assert a more informed opinion on the case. Then ask students who they think was more responsible for Jackson's death, him the administering patient or Dr. Murray, the prescribing physician. Take responses and finally share that they are going to learn a little more on the nervous system's response to the drug and revisit their opinions again later. 

b) Slide 3: Share with students that they will learn more about Proponol and the agent that it agonizes; the GABA neurotransmitter. Start by showing the following video and instruct students to take notes on the information.

c) Post video, address any questions from students and then read and guide them through the list of tasks to gain more information on the neurotransmission and inhibition (via Propopol) activity of GABA. 

Note: Students in pairs should be provided with a set of Gaba Clue cards and provided time arrange the card on a larger sheet of blank paper in a manner that helps to summarize GABA's influence on neurons in the brain. Students should annotate with ballooning figures, sequencing arrows, verbiage, etc. Students should also record the responses to the questions in their lab books. 

d) Slide 4: Review students responses to the questions on slide 3, using the illustrations projected. (Be certain to iterate that Propofol's binding to the the GABA receptor doesn't inhibit it as this conjecture is intuitive of the receptor image. Rather it enhances GABA's inhibitory actions via a G-Coupled receptor pathway.)

Standards Covered: 

MP3-Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.


55 minutes

Section Sequence:

        In this section of the lesson, my goal is to encourage students to take a position in the Jackson/Murray case and construct a viable argument to defend their position based on their experiences in class (presented case facts, doctor warnings, drug facts and GABA neurotransmission information). The goal is to have them grapple with objective and subjective ideas and assert evidence for their claims. 

a) Slide 5: Share with students that they will now, after a little education on the topic, revisit/revise their initial opinions on the case, but in a more creative format. Tell them that they will develop a creative poster not only to verbalize, but to illustrate the science behind their position in court as a lawyer. Read the stated objective and guide students through the tasks displayed. 

Standards Covered: 

MP3-Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

W.11-12.1a-Introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s), establish the significance of the claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that logically sequences claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.


5 minutes

Section Sequence:

Slide 6: Return to the KWL Chart and instruct students to record what they have learned in their lab books. Tell them to share if any, items from the W part of the chart that had been addressed. Finally, tell them to record any additional questions that may still linger.