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Investigating the link between heart disease and mental health

Clinical evidence has shown that heart conditions occur more often in those with certain mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. However, the reason for this is not fully understood.

Portrait of Professor Bart Ellenbroek, School of Psychology, Victoria University, holding a scientific model of the brain in each of his hands.

With support from the Heart Foundation, Professor Bart Ellenbroek, School of Psychology, Victoria University, began investigating the relationship between mental health and heart health in 2017.

Serotonin is a chemical that carries messages between cells in the brain and plays a critical role in body function. Evidence shows that high serotonin levels in early development increase the risk of depression and anxiety disorders. The research team was interested to see if any heart problems were also associated with these high serotonin levels in early life.

“Although the data we gathered was good, this initial study was significantly disrupted by the Covid-19 lockdowns. Though we didn’t get all the data we would have liked, this early-stage study has led to a flurry of new research within our group on the relationship between heart rate and brain science,” says Professor Ellenbroek.

“Based on the new methodologies we developed and the results gathered, we have received substantial new funding for new equipment that will allow us to measure things we haven’t previously been able to. It’s very exciting.

“The boost in our research is a direct result of the Heart Foundation-funded study. On top of that, we have reached out to a world-renowned brain and heart physiology expert and are now working on setting up a collaboration. I’m sure this would not have been possible without the generous support from the Heart Foundation.”

Heart Foundation Medical Director Dr Gerry Devlin says, “We support research at all stages, and our work with clinicians often results in benefits sooner. But by investing in new and innovative basic science projects and researchers, we can also contribute to discovering exciting breakthroughs like this.”

“We look forward to the advances this research potentially will deliver for heart and mental health in New Zealand.”

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