Neuroscience-based harm reduction for older adolescents

17 April 2020
Student spotlight: Jennifer Debenham

Jennifer Debenham is a PhD candidate at the Matilda Centre. Her research aims to unite and empower young people to engage in positive health behaviours around alcohol and drug use through a brain-based drug education program, known as ‘The Illicit Project’.

Jennifer Debenham

PhD candidate Jennifer Debenham

The Illicit Project leverages the compelling power of neuroscience to convey complex health information to young people, an affect coined ‘the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations’. Based on neuroimaging research around the impact of substance use on the developing brain, the program upskills students in harm reduction strategies so they can minimise harm related to drug use, drug addiction and mental health.  

There are currently no mandated drug and alcohol curricula for senior high school students, and validated programs targeting this age group are limited. This significant education gap represents a great opportunity to formally reach young people before they transition out of school.

Young people have an incredible appetite for neuroscience and psychology, and when the information is delivered in a non-judgemental, exploratory over authoritative tone, people seem much more likely to absorb the key messages.
Jennifer Debenham

A community pilot trial of The Illicit Project, involving 372 older adolescents and 11 teachers and health professionals, showed that young people found the neuroscience content interesting (76%) and relevant (81%), and that they plan to apply the concepts learnt to their own lives (80%). All teachers and health professionals agreed The Illicit Project was valid, credible and appropriate for schools and would be effective in reducing the harms and use of alcohol and other drugs amongst young people in those who have and have not initiated use. The pilot trial provided preliminary evidence to suggest the effectiveness of the program as students demonstrated significant improvements in knowledge and attitudes post- intervention. Results of the pilot study have been published in BMJ Open.

If we can address these issues with science and compassion instead of moral judgement and punishment, there’s a lot we can do to de-stigmatise and prevent harm.
Jennifer Debenham

Jennifer is now transitioning The Illicit Project into an online platform to effectively and efficiently reach older adolescents around Australia. Equipped with innovative graphics and videos, real-life interviews and hands-on activities, the online program will be tested in a large-scale randomised controlled trial with independent schools later in the year. To ensure the program reflects the latest, unbiased scientific research, Jennifer is also completing a systematic review of the international literature on the impact of cannabis and illicit substance use on the developing adolescent brain.

Want to get involved?

the illicit project logo
The Illicit Project is currently recruiting schools across Sydney to partake in the 2020 trial. If you are interested please contact Jennifer Debenham at

Jennifer’s PhD is jointly supervised by Associate Professor Nicola Newton and Dr Louise Birrell, with co-supervision from Dr Katrina Champion.

For further information about the development of harm reduction resources for young people, contact Jennifer Debenham at

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