Chronic stress can also alter the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive control center, and the amygdala, the fear and anxiety hub. Too many glucocorticoids for too long can impair the connections both within the prefrontal cortex and between it and the amygdala. As a result, the prefrontal cortex loses its ability to control the amygdala, leaving the fear and anxiety center to run unchecked. This pattern of brain activity (too much action in the amygdala and not enough communication with the prefrontal cortex) is common in people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), another condition that spiked during the pandemic, particularly among frontline health-care workers.
The social isolation brought on by the pandemic was also likely detrimental to the brain’s structure and function. Loneliness has been linked to reduced volume in the hippocampus and amygdala, as well as decreased connectivity in the prefrontal cortex. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who lived alone during the pandemic experienced higher rates of depression and anxiety.
Finally, damage to these brain areas affects people not only emotionally but cognitively as well. Many psychologists have attributed pandemic brain fog to chronic stress’s impact on the prefrontal cortex, where it can impair concentration and working memory.
So that’s the bad news. The pandemic hit our brains hard. These negative changes ultimately come down to a stress-induced decrease in neuroplasticity—a loss of cells and synapses instead of the growth of new ones. But don’t despair; there’s some good news. For many people, the brain can spontaneously recover its plasticity once the stress goes away. If life begins to return to normal, so might our brains.
“In a lot of cases, the changes that occur with chronic stress actually abate over time,” says James Herman, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati. “At the level of the brain, you can see a reversal of a lot of these negative effects.”
In other words, as your routine returns to its pre-pandemic state, your brain should too. The stress hormones will recede as vaccinations continue and the anxiety about dying from a new virus (or killing someone else) subsides. And as you venture out into the world again, all the little things that used to make you happy or challenged you in a good way will do so again, helping your brain to repair the lost connections that those behaviors had once built. For example, just as social isolation is bad for the brain, social interaction is especially good for it. People with larger social networks have more volume and connections in the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and other brain regions.
Even if you don’t feel like socializing again just yet, maybe push yourself a little anyway. Don’t do anything that feels unsafe, but there is an aspect of “fake it till you make it” in treating some mental illness. In clinical speak, it’s called behavioral activation, which emphasizes getting out and doing things even if you don’t want to. At first, you might not experience the same feelings of joy or fun you used to get from going to a bar or a backyard barbecue, but if you stick with it, these activities will often start to feel easier and can help lift feelings of depression.
Rebecca Price, an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, says behavioral activation might work by enriching your environment, which scientists know leads to the growth of new brain cells, at least in animal models. “Your brain is going to react to the environment that you present to it, so if you are in a deprived, not-enriched environment because you’ve been stuck at home alone, that will probably cause some decreases in the pathways that are available,” she says. “If you create for yourself a more enriched environment where you have more possible inputs and interactions and stimuli, then [your brain] will respond to that.” So get off your couch and go check out a museum, a botanical garden, or an outdoor concert. Your brain will thank you.
Exercise can help too. Chronic stress depletes levels of an important chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps promote neuroplasticity. Without BDNF, the brain is less able to repair or replace the cells and connections that are lost to chronic stress. Exercise increases levels of BDNF, especially in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, which at least partially explains why exercise can boost both cognition and mood.
Not only does BDNF help new synapses grow, but it may help produce new neurons in the hippocampus, too. For decades, scientists thought that neurogenesis in humans stopped after adolescence, but recent research has shown signs of neuron growth well into old age (though the issue is still hotly contested). Regardless of whether it works through neurogenesis or not, exercise has been shown time and again to improve people’s mood, attention, and cognition; some therapists even prescribe it to treat depression and anxiety. Time to get out there and start sweating.
Turn to treatment
There’s a lot of variation in how people’s brains recover from stress and trauma, and not everyone will bounce back from the pandemic so easily.
“Some people just seem to be more vulnerable to getting into a chronic state where they get stuck in something like depression or anxiety,” says Price. In these situations, therapy or medication might be required.
Some scientists now think that psychotherapy for depression and anxiety works at least in part by changing brain activity, and that getting the brain to fire in new patterns is a first step to getting it to wire in new patterns. A review paper that assessed psychotherapy for different anxiety disorders found that the treatment was most effective in people who displayed more activity in the prefrontal cortex after several weeks of therapy than they did beforehand—particularly when the area was exerting control over the brain’s fear center.
Other researchers are trying to change people’s brain activity using video games. Adam Gazzaley, a professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, developed the first brain-training game to receive FDA approval for its ability to treat ADHD in kids. The game has also been shown to improve attention span in adults. What’s more, EEG studies revealed greater functional connectivity involving the prefrontal cortex, suggesting a boost in neuroplasticity in the region.
Now Gazzaley wants to use the game to treat people with pandemic brain fog. “We think in terms of covid recovery there’s an incredible opportunity here,” he says. “I believe that attention as a system can help across the breadth of [mental health] conditions and symptoms that people are suffering, especially due to covid.”
This AI could predict 10 years of scientific priorities—if we let it
The survey committee, which receives input from a host of smaller panels, takes into account a gargantuan amount of information to create research strategies. Although the Academies won’t release the committee’s final recommendation to NASA for a few more weeks, scientists are itching to know which of their questions will make it in, and which will be left out.
“The Decadal Survey really helps NASA decide how they’re going to lead the future of human discovery in space, so it’s really important that they’re well informed,” says Brant Robertson, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz.
One team of researchers wants to use artificial intelligence to make this process easier. Their proposal isn’t for a specific mission or line of questioning; rather, they say, their AI can help scientists make tough decisions about which other proposals to prioritize.
The idea is that by training an AI to spot research areas that are either growing or declining rapidly, the tool could make it easier for survey committees and panels to decide what should make the list.
“What we wanted was to have a system that would do a lot of the work that the Decadal Survey does, and let the scientists working on the Decadal Survey do what they will do best,” says Harley Thronson, a retired senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and lead author of the proposal.
Although members of each committee are chosen for their expertise in their respective fields, it’s impossible for every member to grasp the nuance of every scientific theme. The number of astrophysics publications increases by 5% every year, according to the authors. That’s a lot for anyone to process.
That’s where Thronson’s AI comes in.
It took just over a year to build, but eventually, Thronson’s team was able to train it on more than 400,000 pieces of research published in the decade leading up to the Astro2010 survey. They were also able to teach the AI to sift through thousands of abstracts to identify both low- and high-impact areas from two- and three-word topic phrases like “planetary system” or “extrasolar planet.”
According to the researchers’ white paper, the AI successfully “backcasted” six popular research themes of the last 10 years, including a meteoric rise in exoplanet research and observation of galaxies.
“One of the challenging aspects of artificial intelligence is that they sometimes will predict, or come up with, or analyze things that are completely surprising to the humans,” says Thronson. “And we saw this a lot.”
Thronson and his collaborators think the steering committee should use their AI to help review and summarize the vast amounts of text the panel must sift through, leaving human experts to make the final call.
Their research isn’t the first to try to use AI to analyze and shape scientific literature. Other AIs have already been used to help scientists peer-review their colleagues’ work.
But could it be trusted with a task as important and influential as the Decadal Survey?
Securing the energy revolution and IoT future
In early 2021, Americans living on the East Coast got a sharp lesson on the growing importance of cybersecurity in the energy industry. A ransomware attack hit the company that operates the Colonial Pipeline—the major infrastructure artery that carries almost half of all liquid fuels from the Gulf Coast to the eastern United States. Knowing that at least some of their computer systems had been compromised, and unable to be certain about the extent of their problems, the company was forced to resort to a brute-force solution: shut down the whole pipeline.
The interruption of fuel delivery had huge consequences. Fuel prices immediately spiked. The President of the United States got involved, trying to assure panicked consumers and businesses that fuel would become available soon. Five days and untold millions of dollars in economic damage later, the company paid a $4.4 million ransom and restored its operations.
It would be a mistake to see this incident as the story of a single pipeline. Across the energy sector, more and more of the physical equipment that makes and moves fuel and electricity across the country and around the world relies on digitally controlled, networked equipment. Systems designed and engineered for analogue operations have been retrofitted. The new wave of low-emissions technologies—from solar to wind to combined-cycle turbines—are inherently digital tech, using automated controls to squeeze every efficiency from their respective energy sources.
Meanwhile, the covid-19 crisis has accelerated a separate trend toward remote operation and ever more sophisticated automation. A huge number of workers have moved from reading dials at a plant to reading screens from their couch. Powerful tools to change how power is made and routed can now be altered by anyone who knows how to log in.
These changes are great news—the world gets more energy, lower emissions, and lower prices. But these changes also highlight the kinds of vulnerabilities that brought the Colonial Pipeline to an abrupt halt. The same tools that make legitimate energy-sector workers more powerful become dangerous when hijacked by hackers. For example, hard-to-replace equipment can be given commands to shake itself to bits, putting chunks of a national grid out of commission for months at a stretch.
For many nation-states, the ability to push a button and sow chaos in a rival state’s economy is highly desirable. And the more energy infrastructure becomes hyperconnected and digitally managed, the more targets offer exactly that opportunity. It’s not surprising, then, that an increasing share of cyberattacks seen in the energy sector have shifted from targeting information technologies (IT) to targeting operating technologies (OT)—the equipment that directly controls physical plant operations.
To stay on top of the challenge, chief information security officers (CISOs) and their security operations centers (SOCs) will have to update their approaches. Defending operating technologies calls for different strategies—and a distinct knowledge base—than defending information technologies. For starters, defenders need to understand the operating status and tolerances of their assets—a command to push steam through a turbine works well when the turbine is warm, but can break it when the turbine is cold. Identical commands could be legitimate or malicious, depending on context.
Even collecting the contextual data needed for threat monitoring and detection is a logistical and technical nightmare. Typical energy systems are composed of equipment from several manufacturers, installed and retrofitted over decades. Only the most modern layers were built with cybersecurity as a design constraint, and almost none of the machine languages used were ever meant to be compatible.
For most companies, the current state of cybersecurity maturity leaves much to be desired. Near-omniscient views into IT systems are paired with big OT blind spots. Data lakes swell with carefully collected outputs that can’t be combined into a coherent, comprehensive picture of operational status. Analysts burn out under alert fatigue while trying to manually sort benign alerts from consequential events. Many companies can’t even produce a comprehensive list of all the digital assets legitimately connected to their networks.
In other words, the ongoing energy revolution is a dream for efficiency—and a nightmare for security.
Securing the energy revolution calls for new solutions equally capable of identifying and acting on threats from both physical and digital worlds. Security operations centers will need to bring together IT and OT information flows, creating a unified threat stream. Given the scale of data flows, automation will need to play a role in applying operational knowledge to alert generation—is this command consistent with business as usual, or does context show it’s suspicious? Analysts will need broad, deep access to contextual information. And defenses will need to grow and adapt as threats evolve and businesses add or retire assets.
This month, Siemens Energy unveiled a monitoring and detection platform aimed at resolving the core technical and capability challenges for CISOs tasked with defending critical infrastructure. Siemens Energy engineers have done the legwork needed to automate a unified threat stream, allowing their offering, Eos.ii, to serve as a fusion SOC that’s capable of unleashing the power of artificial intelligence on the challenge of monitoring energy infrastructure.
AI-based solutions answer the dual need for adaptability and persistent vigilance. Machine learning algorithms trawling huge volumes of operational data can learn the expected relationships between variables, recognizing patterns invisible to human eyes and highlighting anomalies for human investigation. Because machine learning can be trained on real-world data, it can learn the unique characteristics of each production site, and can be iteratively trained to distinguish benign and consequential anomalies. Analysts can then tune alerts to watch for specific threats or ignore known sources of noise.
Extending monitoring and detection into the OT space makes it harder for attackers to hide—even when unique, zero-day attacks are deployed. In addition to examining traditional signals like signature-based detection or network traffic spikes, analysts can now observe the effects that new inputs have on real-world equipment. Cleverly disguised malware would still raise red flags by creating operational anomalies. In practice, analysts using the AI-based systems have found that their Eos.ii detection engine was sensitive enough to predictively identify maintenance needs—for example, when a bearing begins to wear out and the ratio of steam in to power out begins to drift.
Done right, monitoring and detection that spans both IT and OT should leave intruders exposed. Analysts investigating alerts can trace user histories to determine the source of anomalies, and then roll forward to see what else was changed in a similar timeframe or by the same user. For energy companies, increased precision translates to dramatically reduced risk – if they can determine the scope of an intrusion, and identify which specific systems were compromised, they gain options for surgical responses that fix the problem with minimal collateral damage—say, shutting down a single branch office and two pumping stations instead of a whole pipeline.
As energy systems continue their trend toward hyperconnectivity and pervasive digital controls, one thing is clear: a given company’s ability to provide reliable service will depend more and more on their ability to create and sustain strong, precise cyber defenses. AI-based monitoring and detection offers a promising start.
To learn more about Siemens Energy’s new AI-based monitoring and detection platform, check out their recent white paper on Eos.ii.
Learn more about Siemens Energy cybersecurity at Siemens Energy Cybersecurity.
This content was produced by Siemens Energy. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.
The US is about to kick-start its controversial covid booster campaign
Disagreements: Booster shots have been controversial. A group of top scientists, including experts at the FDA and WHO, published a review in The Lancet on Monday arguing that booster shots are unnecessary since vaccines are still very effective at preventing severe disease and death. Furthermore, they say, vaccine supplies could save more lives if they’re used for unvaccinated people rather than as boosters for the vaccinated. That’s why the WHO has been pleading with rich countries to stop handing them out until more of the world is vaccinated.
Unequal distribution: The US joins the UK, the UAE, France, Germany, and Israel, which have also launched booster programs. In the UK, for example, a rollout of booster shots to all over-50s is about to begin after officials gave the green light last week. Meanwhile, less than 4% of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated, compared with 70% of adults in the EU. In the US, it’s 55%, a figure that has stubbornly failed to significantly budge in recent weeks. Earlier this week, President Biden announced that the US would buy a further 500 million doses of vaccine to distribute to other parts of the world, bringing its total commitment to more than 1 billion.
Scramble: Millions of Americans are likely to try to get a third shot. A YouGov poll this summer found that three in five vaccinated Americans will get one if it’s available. Given the chaotic nature of the US vaccine rollout, it will be hard to prevent people from gaming the system to get a third shot even if they aren’t technically eligible.