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Did You Know Your Heart has a Brain?

Heart-Brain Plasticity Creates New Treatment Platform for Neuroplasticity

Discovered in 1991 by J. Andew Armour, the heart actually has its own brain, scientifically known as the Intrinsic Cardiac Nervous System (ICNS). The ICNS, or heart-brain, works independently to regulate the heart’s function in a beat-to-beat fashion and communicates with other neurological systems to guide their performance, creating sophisticated feedback loops. While still early in its discovery from a medical application perspective, treatments using this feedback loop and the ICNS’s newly discovered plasticity are already being considered the future of cardiovascular care.

What is the Heart-Brain?

Figure 1. Nerve cells (yellow) that make up a heart’s “brain” cluster around the top of this reconstructed rat heart, near where blood vessels enter and exit the organ. Other colors show the contours of distinct heart areas, such as the left atrium (green), right atrium (teal), left ventricle (blue) and right ventricle (purple). ~Courtesy s. Achanta et al/iscience 2020 .

The ICNS is located on the surface of the heart near the top of the atria (see Figure 1). Functionally, it is an intricate network of complex ganglia (see Figure 2), neurotransmitters, proteins, and support cells identical to the ones found in the cranial brain, performing similar tasks. And while much smaller in size - 40K neurons compared to the cranial brain’s 86B - the heart-brain equally has the capacity to learn, remember, make decisions, feel, and sense. The ICNS shares the data gathered through these functions with the central (brain and spine) and peripheral nervous systems, creating complex feedback loops. In fact, scientists now believe the heart-brain sends far more information to the cranial brain than it receives, upending the long-held belief that the cranial brain is in control of our bodily functions!

Figure 2. Microscopic image of cardiac ganglia in the human heart. The thin, light-blue structures are multiple axons that connect the ganglia. – Courtesy of Heart Math Institute

Zen Cardiology as the Future of Cardiovascular Care

Upon discovering the ICNS’s critical role, physicians quickly began exploring its interaction with other neurological systems. The new experts in this discipline, called neurocardiologists, concluded that the ICNS, and therefore the heart’s function, could be altered by manipulating interconnected nerves. Research soon showed this neuromodulation to be beneficial in managing and recovering from arrhythmia, heart attack, and stroke.

While cardiac neuromodulation treatment is often combined with pharmaceuticals, mindfulness and meditation training are critical components of the protocol. In fact, Dr. Jeffrey Ardell, often considered the "Father of Neurocardiology"and Director of UCLA’s Neurocardiology Center of Excellenceare believes neuromodulation is the future of cardiovascular care and affectionately calls himself a “zen cardiologist” given the impact mindfulness has on the outcome of patients, and the neurological focus of his work.

While still in the early stages of application, research continues to show that neuromodulation can significantly improve the outcome of cardiac distress by reducing inflammation, signaling the release of neuroprotective hormones, stopping the progression of muscle deterioration, and preventing the negative side effects incurred with other more intrusive and pharmacological based methods. Many advanced hospitals are already using multiple methods of cardiac neuromodulation (i.e., spinal cord and vegas nerve stimulation) and the FDA in 2019 approved the use of devices for this purpose, so be sure to ask your cardiac care team about this option if needed.

A New Platform for Neuroplasticity-based Treatments

Up until recently, Neuroplasticity referred to the body’s ability to grow new, and reshape existing, neural networks in the brain. Twenty years ago, most neurologists did not even accept the concept of neuroplasticity. But things have changed quite rapidly in the field of neurology. Over the last 10 years, in addition to the heart-brain, we now know the body has a “second brain” in the gut, the Enteric Nervous System, which has far more neurons than the cranial brain. And scientists now generally accept that there are an additional five “little brains,” or neuron clusters in the body that align with the Chakras, each exhibiting plasticity.

The shift in acceptance of neuroplasticity, and the ability to use it as a treatment modality for the cranial and heart brains are slowly creating a paradigm shift in healthcare that is simultaneously closing the gap between Eastern and Western medicine. Acupuncture and mindfulness are two good examples of neuroplasticity-based treatments that are Eastern in origin and now widely embraced by the West. But these are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to some of the more widely available neuroplasticity-based therapies listed HERE, you can now add Zen Cardiology to that list.

The impact of adding heart-brain restructuring to that list, however, broadens the traditional definition of neuroplasticity-based therapy. It adds a completely new division - a new treatment platform focused on the heart-brain rather than the cranial brain. And this may be just the first of many new platforms to add. As we learn more about how the other neurological clusters (i.e., gut-brain) interact with one another, new areas of focus are likely to arise creating the need for new treatment platforms, each with their own methodology and application for restructuring that neurological cluster. As the complexity of the nervous system becomes better understood, the application of treatments on those systems must also become more advanced. Perhaps it is time for the field of professionals practicing neuroplasticity to follow in the footsteps of neuroradiologists and become a distinct healthcare discipline.

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