Examining the ‘little brains’ of our heart

Thanks to our generous supporters, we’re funding an exciting piece of research that aims to find new ways of preventing heart rhythm problems, which affect thousands of Kiwis.

It’s likely that you’ve heard of neurons – those small cells that carry messages between our brains and other parts of the body. 

But did you know there are also clusters of neurons on our hearts?

These clusters are known affectionately as ‘little brains of the heart’ but we know very little about them compared to the neurons in our brains. 

That’s why, with your support, we’re funding an important research project led by Associate Professor Johanna Montgomery from the University of Auckland’s Department of Physiology.

With a team of scientists, she’s turning her microscope onto these ‘little brains’ to understand their role in heart health, and how they might contribute to cardiac arrhythmias – where the heartbeat is irregular, too fast, or too slow.

“This research aims to examine the role of nerve cells in regulating heart rhythm in both the normal and diseased state,” she explains.  

“We are performing physiology experiments to determine how nerve cells communicate with heart cells, and imaging experiments to visually show the structure of the neurons of the heart.

“Our data so far suggests that neurons within the heart are highly likely to directly communicate with each other to alter heart rhythm. We are now examining whether this communication is altered in heart disease.” 

Her research could help identify the role of the communication that occurs between these neurons in cardiac arrhythmias – and ultimately, help prevent such conditions. 

Associate Professor Montgomery received a small project grant in the Heart Foundation in July 2015 funding round, and her project will be finished in 2017. 

“I am very grateful for the Heart Foundation’s support as it is enabling the creation of a new and important research direction to better understand how synapses in the heart can contribute to arrhythmias."