New Imaging Technique Allows Study of Human Heart Conduction Fibers

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The human heart has a simple function: it’s a pump that circulates fluid (blood) through a series of pipes (blood vessels). However, the mechanics behind this function are quite complex. They involve an intricate series of conducting pathways that allow for the generation of an electrical impulse that propagates in a specific way through the heart muscle in order to produce a synchronized and efficient contraction, or heartbeat. While scientists understand the theory behind the electrical impulses that control the heartbeat, the specifics of the conducting pathway have been difficult to study…until now.

Heart tissue fibers


Researchers at the University of Liverpool in the U.K. have developed a method of 3D visualization for the conducting pathways of the heart. The technique combines iodine contrast solution with CT scan imaging. The conducting pathways absorb less of the iodine than surrounding muscle, allowing them to show up on CT images. Dr. Jonathan Jarvis, of the University’s Institute of Aging and Chronic Disease, explained the significance of the technology:

These new anatomically-detailed images could improve the accuracy of future computer models of the heart and help us understand how normal and abnormal heart rhythms are generated. 3D imaging will give us a more thorough knowledge of the cardiac conduction system, and the way it changes in heart disease.

Researchers hope that in particular, the technique will help them understand why the heart’s electrical system sometimes malfunctions, producing rhythms (such as fibrillation, or chaotic pumping) that are incompatible with life. Knowing how a normal heartbeat is generated — and knowing how that heartbeat becomes abnormal — may allow scientists to develop more effective means of preventing or treating heart problems associated with the heart’s electrical conduction system. The imaging technique was recently published in the journal PLoS ONE [1].

Source: University of Liverpool

Reference:

  1. Stephenson et al. Contrast Enhanced Micro-Computed Tomography Resolves the 3-Dimensional Morphology of the Cardiac Conduction System in Mammalian Hearts. PLoS One. 2012;7(4):e35299. Epub 2012 Apr 11.
    View abstract
About the Author

Kirstin Hendrickson is a science journalist and faculty in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Arizona State University. She has a Ph.D. in Chemistry.