Researchers at the George Washington University (GW) received $1.6 million from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to study a heart-brain connection that could help the nearly 23 million people suffering from heart failure worldwide. The four-year project will study ways to restore parasympathetic activity to the heart through oxytocin neuron activation, which could improve cardiac function during heart failure.
A distinctive hallmark of heart failure is autonomic imbalance, consisting of increased sympathetic activity and decreased parasympathetic activity. Parasympathetic activity is cardiac protective.
“Parasympathetic activity is what you have when you’re reading a book, or relaxing, and counteracts the sympathetic activity you have when you’re stuck on the metro or have an exam tomorrow,” said David Mendelowitz, Ph.D., vice chair and professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “Heart failure is a disease that effects both neuro and cardiac function.”
Unfortunately, few effective treatments exist to increase parasympathetic activity to the heart. Based upon exciting preliminary results, this study will examine the activation of neurons in the hypothalamus that release oxytocin, which has shown to increase parasympathetic activity in the heart. While oxytocin is often used to start or increase speed of labor, recent research has uncovered its role in feelings of generosity and bonding. It may also have beneficial effects on the heart.
The project is a collaboration between the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences and the GW School of Engineering and Applied Science.
“While Dr. Mendelowitz’s research is focused on neuroscience and how the brain works, my work is focused on cardiac function. Heart failure is a disease that affects both, which is why it is imperative for Dr. Mendelowitz and I to use our complimentary expertise to solve this problem,” said Matthew Kay, PE, DSc, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the GW School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Kay and his research team will use high-speed optical assessments of heart function to identify heart-specific benefits of oxytocin nerve activation. Working together, Mendelowitz and Kay have the potential to unravel the complex interaction between the brain and the heart during heart failure.