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Virtual model of heart may aid heart failure treatment

In addition to heart failure, researchers say the model can be used to observe other conditions by altering chemical and physiological changes to the organ in the model.

By
Stephen Feller
Two views of a heart model, created by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles, showing electrical activity during ventricular fibrillation, a condition in which the heart's ability to pump blood becomes fragmented and discoordinated. Photo by UCLA Cardiac Modeling Group
Two views of a heart model, created by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles, showing electrical activity during ventricular fibrillation, a condition in which the heart's ability to pump blood becomes fragmented and discoordinated. Photo by UCLA Cardiac Modeling Group

LOS ANGELES, June 24 (UPI) -- In order to better understand how conditions such as arrhythmia and heart failure manifest, researchers have created a virtual model to see the heart in action and test drugs to prevent adverse health events.

Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles say the model will allow them to see what small changes in cells and tissues in the organ lead to detrimental heart conditions, as well as try out methods of preventing or treating the conditions, according to a press release.

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Heart failure is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, and a very common cause for hospitalization, but researchers say exactly what happens to the heart leading to the condition is not understood.

"The definition of heart failure encompasses a broad range of conditions each with a compromised cardiac function," researchers write in the study, which is published in PLOS Computational Biology. "Consequently there is not a 'true' single model of heart failure, but rather a range of subclasses, each requiring a separate model. Here, to narrow our scope and enable the formulation of a computational model, we focus on congestive heart failure."

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For the study, researchers reproduced digitally a previously validated electrophysiology model for the function of a healthy rabbit heart, focusing on congestive heart failure and the changes to heart function that cause the condition to develop.

The researchers then adjusted levels of calcium, potassium and sodium ions, all of which are required for the heart to work properly, to observe how heart cells and tissue operate when these levels change.

In ventricular fibrillation -- the heartbeat becomes fragmented and erratic -- a slowdown in cellular processes near the top of the heart contributes to its manifestation. In seeing how this happened, the researchers also tested the effects of drug therapy on the condition.

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In addition to gaining new understanding of congestive heart failure, and identifying potential treatment options, the researchers said they expect the model to help gain a better understanding of a range of other heart conditions.

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