Research uncovers exactly when our heart first starts to beat

11 October 2016        

Category: Research

A detailed image of the heart on a black background

When does our heart first start to beat? Until now, researchers thought that the first time our heart muscle contracted to beat was at 8 days after conception in mice which equates to around day 21 of a human pregnancy.

Now, a team part-funded by us at the University of Oxford have demonstrated earlier beating of the heart in mouse embryos.

In the study, published in the scientific journal eLife, researchers studied the developing mouse heart and found that the muscle started to contract as soon as it formed the cardiac crescent – an early stage in heart development.

In mice, this crescent forms 7.5 days after conception, which is equivalent to approximately day 16 in the human embryo.

How this research will help us to fight for every heartbeat 

Congenital heart disease is diagnosed in at least 1 in 180 births, which equates to 12 babies each day in the UK. The researchers ultimately hope that by understanding more about how the heart forms in the womb they will one day be able to prevent heart conditions that arise as a foetus develops. 

The heart is the first organ to form during pregnancy and is critical in providing oxygen and nutrients to the developing embryo.

BHF Professor Paul Riley, who led the research at the University of Oxford, said:

“We are trying to better understand how the heart develops, and ultimately what causes the heart defects that develop in the womb before birth and to extrapolate to adult heart repair.

“By finding out how the heart first starts to beat and how problems can arise in heart development, we are one step closer to being able to prevent heart conditions from arising during pregnancy."

Repairing the heart after a heart attack

Professor Riley and his team also hope that these findings will bring them closer to being able to repair damaged muscle after a heart attack, which can lead to heart failure

One of the main difficulties with repairing the heart is that the new cells need to connect and synchronise their beating with the existing tissue. Just like making origami, without having the right set of instructions it becomes a much more difficult to make a heart, or even parts of the heart, with the right form and function. 

By finding out how and when the heart first starts to beat the team have uncovered some of the “instructions” that may help them to transform stem cells into fully functional cardiac cells in the lab.

Help us to fund more vital research

The BHF is a major UK funder of research into congenital heart disease with millions of pounds worth of research projects happening across the country, all made possible by donations and support from the public.