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A human relevant approach to study brain damage caused by abnormal heart rhythm

Dr Adjanie Patabendige

Edge Hill University


Irregular heartbeat, known as atrial fibrillation, can cause the flow of blood to the brain to change. This can lead to a breach in the blood brain barrier (a cell layer that prevents harmful substances from entering the brain) leading to brain damage and an increased chance of developing stroke or dementia. With an ageing population, and an increase in obesity, the number of people experiencing atrial fibrillation is predicted to increase, so treatments to tackle this heart condition are critical.

Due to a lack of human relevant approaches, research on atrial fibrillation currently relies heavily on animal, with dogs being most commonly used. Many procedures cause severe suffering and result in the animals dying. Furthermore, they are limited in their usefulness as the patterns of blood flow don’t mirror what happens in people. Atrial fibrillation in animals is also uncommon and often has to be deliberately induced in the lab.

Dr Adjanie Patabendige, at Edge Hill university, is building on an existing approach which uses human cells to recreate the blood-brain barrier in the lab. She’s modifying this system and using ECGs (heart rhythm recordings) from atrial fibrillation patients, to investigate what happens to the blood-brain barrier when blood flow is altered. This will help her to understand how atrial fibrillation leads to brain damage.

A first of its kind for studying atrial fibrillation, this human-relevant approach could have a profound impact on ending animal suffering. It could also advance our understanding of the effects of atrial fibrillation on the brain, guiding treatments and reducing the risk of brain damage and dementia.