NIH provides researchers $8.6 million to map heart’s anatomy

Researchers from seven institutions received an $8.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct research on the anatomy and function of the nerves that control the heart.

Kalyanam Shivkumar, MD, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, will serve as the lead researcher. The title of the project is “Comprehensive Structural and Functional Mapping of the Mammalian Cardiac Nervous System.”

The principal investigators from the other schools are Viviana Gradinaru, PhD (California Institute of Technology), Stephen Liberles, PhD (Harvard University), Charless Fowlkes, PhD (University of California, Irvine), Irving Zucker, PhD (University of Nebraska Medical Center), Beth Habecker, PhD (Oregon Health and Science University) and David Paterson, DPhil, DSc (Oxford University).

“Understanding the nervous system’s control of the heart is such a complex problem that it requires a collaborative approach, and we’re pleased that so many experts are coming together for this initiative,” Shivkumar, director of the UCLA cardiac arrhythmia center and electrophysiology programs, said in a news release. “Our goal is to precisely map the heart’s anatomy and code the function of the nerves that control the heart from a very basic level all the way to clinical studies in humans.”

The project is part of the NIH’s SPARC (Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions) initiative, which provides funding for anatomical and functional mapping of the innervation of major internal organs. Researchers can also obtain funding to develop new tools or examine existing tools to evaluate the autonomic control of organs.

The NIH mentioned that cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of mortality in the U.S. and result in more than 800,000 deaths per year. Shivkumar and his colleagues hope their research will lead to the development of treatments that control abnormal heart rhythms, prevent the progression of heart disease and reduce hospitalizations.

“The techniques proposed will allow, for the first time, a detailed description of the anatomical and molecular interactions at the synaptic and cell body levels in cardiac and extracardiac ganglia,” the NIH wrote in a description of the project. “The techniques used and the integration of these pathways represents the most innovative attempt to understand cardiac neural control ever undertaken. Understanding these pathways has the potential to accelerate development of therapies that will be able to precisely target neural structures and also guide methods to re-purpose already available therapies (e.g. nerve stimulators) for therapeutic purposes. Ultimately, these approaches are required to develop novel, effective, and affordable interventions for the management and prevention of heart disease and sudden cardiac death.”