University College London (UCL) researchers have discovered that a system which normally coordinates signalling from the brain to different parts of the heart may be disrupted in some people, making them vulnerable to potentially fatal abnormal heart rhythms during mentally taxing tasks or emotional events such as family gatherings. The new study, appearing in the journal Brain, suggests that uneven brain activity, in a region where nerves link directly to the heart, seems to result in an uneven distribution of signals across the heart, which stops the heart from contracting normally.
Around a third of the 300,000 sudden cardiac deaths which occur each year in the US arise from a blood clot in a major artery, which leads to a fatal heart attack. Mental stress is thought to be responsible for a further 20 percent of these deaths, but scientists have been baffled by the exact mechanisms by which stress can bring on a fatal short-circuiting of the heart.
The brainstem is connected on the left and right side to the heart by nerve pathways, known as autonomic nerves. These autonomic nerves control heart rate during physical or mental activity. To maintain a regular heartbeat, the electrical currents that travel across the heart and initiate the heartbeat should be smooth and even. If these electrical waves travel slower or faster in parts of the heart, this can result in a short circuit which leads to arrhythmia – an irregular heartbeat. Normally, the output from the brainstem to the heart via left and right autonomic nerves is symmetrical and does not disrupt heart rhythm, even during stress. However, UCL scientists think that, in some cases, the autonomic nerves fire unevenly during stress, which disturbs the smooth electrical pattern across the heart and could ultimately induce an irregular, and eventually fatal, heartbeat.
Dr Peter Taggart from UCL’s Centre for Cardiology says: “Some people are at risk of sudden death from stress, mainly people who already have heart disease. In these cases the combination of heart and brain irregularities means that heart failure could occur during a stressful or emotional event like a family Christmas gathering or even a boisterous New Year party. It may soon be possible to identify which people are particularly at risk and even to treat a heart problem with a drug that works on the brain.”