As a young man, Jonathan Soucy found a passion for chemistry in high school – a passion that would eventually lead him to Northeastern, where he studies the complex neurochemical systems that allow the brain to control the function of the heart. While he started his education in Chemistry with a degree in Chemical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he focused on biotech and drug development, Jonathan wanted his graduate education to focus more on the biology behind the pharmaceuticals.
Since beginning his studies at Northeastern in 2015, Soucy’s research has focused on neurochemistry; specifically on the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve systems, the mechanisms by which the brain controls the the speed and function of the heart via the adrenal gland, the “fight or flight” response. “I make in vitro models of these processes using cells from rodents,” explains Jonathan, “essentially an organ-on-chip platform, to mimic the function of the neurons directing these systems.”
Using these model neural systems, Soucy is able to study the nervous system’s responses to a wide variety of stimuli, ranging from drug compounds to electric shocks. Soucy’s hope is that by studying the mechanical processes of these systems, this will in turn reveal ways to better treat and repair those connections when they are disrupted by injury or disease. He hopes to someday see research like his guiding the development of novel treatments for damage to the brain-heart connection – whether that be by new and better drugs, or by mechanical devices such as nerve cuffs applied to the nerves leading to the heart.
His research has led to some unexpected breakthroughs as well – a biomaterial he developed to encourage regrowth of heart cells was found to work far better with neurons, as well as having strong adhesive properties, effectively acting as nerve superglue. While it is currently being tested with rodent subjects, Soucy envisions it being used by surgeons in lieu of sutures for repairing nerves that have been severed by trauma such as car accidents, military injuries and the like. “Our hope is that in addition to being able to promote nerve regeneration faster than through the native tissue that would otherwise be sutured together, we can also perform the surgery in much less time, as well as provoking much less inflammation than said sutures.”
While he expects to complete his PhD in mid-2020, Jonathan is in no rush to leave academia; he plans to pursue a professorship, and is currently applying for fellowships to continue his research. In the long term, he hopes to start his own lab to study the connections between the brain and optic nerve, where he hopes to apply his study of the heart’s innervated system to a new challenge.