Scientists Discover New Heart Cell That Regulates Heart Rate

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Described as “surprising,” a new study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame, USA, has discovered a new cell in the heart — previously described only in the brain and spinal cord. The “glial nexus”, a name given because of its shape similar to a network around the organ, can expand the knowledge of doctors about heart disease. The research was published in PLOS Biology.

Glial cells are essential for the development and functionality of the entire central nervous system (CNS) of vertebrates, a subphylum of animals that have a segmented spine and a skull that protects the brain. They also resemble astrocytes—the most abundant cells in the CNS and the largest (star-shaped).

And despite their importance to the body, these cells weren’t found in the peripheral nervous system (PNS) — parts connected by nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, like nerve ganglia — not until recent research. Cody Smith, co-author of the article, shared on his social networks that this was the reason the team was intrigued to look for glial-like cells in parts other than the brain and spinal cord.

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Discoveries of the new heart cell

The researchers analyzed a zebrafish (aka paulistinha, an ornamental aquarium fish) and found a type of cell in the animal’s heart that resembled astrocytes. Crossing data with other species, scientists found the same cells in human and mouse hearts. These bodies are formed even before we are born and are part of the same group of cells that make our faces and smooth muscles.

The researchers found that they spread through the heart from the outflow pathways — a structure that forms during development and contributes to a pathway that connects the ventricles to the arteries that exit the heart. Smith said the definition of great science is something that you find opens up even more questions, and that’s the case. According to him, this is a discovery that the team now has another 100 questions that we didn’t even know existed. “We are accompanying them to explore this path that has never been studied before”, he said.

Heart diseases

The discovery could pave the way for understanding, and, who knows, treating some heart disease. Nina L. Kikel-Coury, lead author of the study, said the findings are fascinating, as the outflow tract is problematic in 30% of congenital heart disease. So when the team followed the heartbeat, they could see tachycardia when the glial cell nexus was disrupted.

Kikel-Coury became interested in how these cells were factored into a group of medical conditions called dysautonomia, which result from failures in the autonomic nervous system. She found that in one of these situations, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) occurs, which causes dizziness, fainting, and a rapid increase in heart rate.

And while researchers believe the new cell discovered in the research could be linked to POTS and other heart disease, it’s too early to say. The team still doesn’t fully understand their function, but the concept that if you have the glias in your heart, your heart rate increases, this could link them to more cases of complications such as a heart attack.

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