While traditional thought was that the heart is constantly responding to ‘orders’ sent by the brain in the form of neural signals, recent research suggests that the heart actually sends more signals to the brain than vice-versa.
Knowing that communication between the heart and the brain is a dynamic, ongoing, two-way dialogue – with each organ continuously influencing the other’s function – it is critical to also understand what happens when the heart or mind is not functioning the way it should.
When the interconnection between these two vascular organs is compromised, both mental health and cardiovascular health can be affected.
For example, intense anger or grief can boost risk of a heart attack five-fold and stroke three-fold.
Among people who have a heart attack, roughly one-third will become depressed afterwards, and those with both heart disease and depression or anxiety die about 17 years earlier compared to those who are mentally well.
People with post-traumatic stress disorder have also been found to have higher rates of cardiac problems than the general population, and recent research has found a strong correlation between sleep problems and abnormalities in heart rate.
Given the evidence supporting this complex connection, dedicated research efforts to better understand the interaction between mental and cardiovascular health – and to inform better diagnosis and treatment for patients with co-morbidities – is needed.
Understanding the complex brain-heart connection – and ultimately improving patient outcomes – is the focus of a five-year joint research study between The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research (IMHR) and the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.
The goal of the Brain Heart Registry Study is to register a large number of patients at The Royal and the Heart Institute to begin to unravel the interaction between mental and cardiovascular health.
The study involves heart and brain imaging using the cutting-edge PET-MRI machine at The Royal’s Brain Imaging Centre; a hybrid imaging technology that allows for accurate and simultaneous imaging of both organs.
Given that many psychiatric patients often suffer from sleep disorders, individuals who are referred to The Royal’s Sleep Lab and agree to participate in the Brain Heart Registry Study are also being tracked.
Many of the latest medical breakthroughs come from large data sets (“Big Data”), and this joint research study has the potential to improve diagnosis and treatment for both cardiovascular patients and patients with psychiatric disorders down the road.