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Love hormone oxytocin may lead to heart failure after a heart attack

Heart Foundation-funded research is investigating the role of oxytocin in leading to chronic heart failure after a heart attack and also studying the potential of an oxytocin blocker to prevent heart damage.

Oxytocin, sometimes called the ‘love hormone', had been shown to have a positive effect on the heart. Now new research is investigating if it may actually have a detrimental effect after a heart attack and lead to heart failure.

Within the first hours after a heart attack, cardiac sympathetic nerve activity (cSNA) can become dangerously high and may lead to life threatening heart rhythm problems. In some people, after a heart attack cSNA remains high and can cause permanent damage to the heart which may result in heart failure.

Previous research by Dr Rachael Augustine, from the University of Otago, found that a heart attack activates oxytocin neurons and increases cSNA. She's now been awarded funding to see if oxytocin contributes to the sustained increase in cSNA associated with heart failure.

"I'm grateful to the Heart Foundation for enabling this second part of my research, which builds on the acute study and helps translates those findings into useful conclusions," says Rachael. "Hopefully this will lead to a new treatment to reduce heart damage after a heart attack and improve survival."

Immediate impact of a new treatment target

The question this research looks to address is does oxytocin drive cSNA activity which causes heart damage after a heart attack?

A second important research objective is to assess the effectiveness of an oxytocin receptor blocker medication, which blocks the receptors that the oxytocin acts on.

This could lead to the introduction of oxytocin receptor blockers as a novel treatment to improve outcomes for people following a heart attack. Study results could be translated into clinical actions for health professionals like paramedics, where preventing cSNA activation immediately after a heart attack may have the greatest opportunity to improve outcomes.

Rachael's background is in neuroendocrinology (the study of interactions between hormones and the brain), originally researching oxytocin in birth and lactation, and she has since become involved in heart research.

"I find it fascinating that oxytocin is involved in the heart and is potentially detrimental to heart health," she says.