Revising our pandemic brain circuitry – 3.26.21

Letter from Dean Sive - March 26, 2021
Dear College of Science Faculty and Staff,

Almost everything can be framed as a ‘pathway’, that I would define as ‘one thing leading to another’. This may be one of the Great Principles. There is your path through life, that you build and that often seems to build itself. And almost everything in science is part of a natural or built pathway.

Each chemical synthesis that produces medicines is a carefully orchestrated pathway, one step producing the material needed for the next step along the route to a final product. In the chemistry of life, biochemistry, the pathways are crazy complex. Different pathways connect and diverge and connect again. It’s these ‘metabolic’ pathways that most medicines target, and side effects occur because of pathway entanglements. Even if a drug fixes one pathway, it will likely have unwanted effects on others that are connected. It is almost impossible to disentangle these.

Pathways in the nervous system are particularly interesting because they are often not fixed. The nervous system is wired by neurons, specialized cells that transmit electrical signals and connect through synapses, to form neural circuits, the pathways of your mind. The connections are not simple snaps – most synapses use chemicals (neurotransmitters) that travel between neurons, and synapses are open to modification and modulation. As you learn, new synapses and circuits form, and learning increases because of changes in neurotransmitters and the response of neurons to these. There are about 100 million neurons in the human brain, and each can make 10,000 connections, making for mind-boggling complexity in the brain ‘connectome’.

During the COVID pandemic, we have done a lot of learning. You probably now readily remember to wear a mask when you go outside, and you avoid getting too close to non-pod people without thinking twice. The landscape is quite familiar, because each of us has formed some new neural circuitry. We have also been enormously stressed, and Covid Stress Syndrome is real. Please take care of your mental health, and seek help as you need it.

There is writing now on fear of being normal, post-COVID. Some of this has to do with revising our pandemic brain circuitry and it will be a jolt to try and lose this. I can’t now imagine feeling comfortable going out mask-less. It will help to reactivate pleasant, socializing circuits that have been dormant for a year. We will have to build up again these old pathways, even while remnants of the pandemic persist.

Of course, post-pandemic is a myth right now. Most people are not yet vaccinated and our cases on campus have been increasing. So, please stay masked, distanced and tested. And please ensure that your students and research group members do also. THANK YOU!

For those of you celebrating the freedom festival of Passover that begins this weekend, Chag Sameach!

Best regards,

dean signature

Hazel Sive PhD
Dean, College of Science
Northeastern University