Some Cases of Sudden Cardiac Death May Start in Brain

Disrupted signals to heart may be fatal in stressful settings, study finds

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WEDNESDAY, Jan. 5, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- Disrupted signals from the brain to the heart may be responsible for sudden cardiac death caused by emotional stress, says a University College London study.

It found that some people have problems with a system that coordinates signals sent from the brain stem to different parts of the heart to control heart rhythm. These people may have a greater risk of potentially fatal heart rhythms when they're doing stressful mental tasks or during emotional events.

The researchers monitored the brain activity of people with heart disease while they performed stressful mental tasks. Stress-induced changes in heart electrical currents were accompanied by uneven activity within the brain stem, the study found.

"Some people are at risk of sudden cardiac death from stress, mainly people who already have heart disease. In these cases, the combination of heart and brain irregularities means heart failure could occur during a stressful or emotional event like a family gathering or even a boisterous New Year party," researcher Dr. Peter Taggart, of the university's Centre for Cardiology, said in a prepared statement.

"Efforts to prevent the development of potentially dangerous heart rhythms in response to stress have focused on drugs which act directly on the heart, but results have so far been rather disappointing. Our research focuses on what is happening upstream, in the brain, when stress causes these heart rhythm problems. The results so far are very encouraging," Taggart said.

"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," he added.

The findings appear in the January issue of Brain.

More information

The Heart Rhythm Society has more about sudden cardiac death.

SOURCE: University College London news release

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