Scientists discover possible explanation for broken heart syndrome

27 December 2018        

Category: Research

BHF-funded researchers have identified the body’s own immune system as a potential key player in the mysterious heart condition, takotsubo cardiomyopathy, commonly known as ‘broken heart syndrome.’

Woman clutching chest, possible heart attack

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is a sudden form of acute heart failure which affects hundreds of people in the UK each year, who are mainly women. It can cause the same symptoms as a heart attack, and although the coronary arteries are not blocked, the risk of complications is similar to those of an actual heart attack.

No treatments

We do not yet fully understand what causes takotsubo cardiomyopathy, but it is usually brought on by emotional or physical stress such as the loss of a loved one – hence its nickname – and there are currently no treatments to prevent a repeat attack.

Researchers from the University of Aberdeen used MRI scans to measure the levels of inflammation in the heart muscle and blood of 55 patients with acute takotsubo cardiomyopathy. The findings revealed that patients with takotsubo had higher levels of inflammation compared to healthy volunteers, a trend which was still present at least five months after the initial event.

Professor Dana Dawson, Chair in Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Aberdeen, who led the study explains: “We hypothesized that inflammation is central to the pathophysiology and natural history of broken heart syndrome.

“We found that broken heart syndrome triggers a storm in the immune system which results in acute inflammation in the heart muscle. The heart muscle then spills inflammatory signals that circulate throughout the body.

“We still don’t know if this is the cause of the broken heart syndrome itself or if it is a reactive response, but it offers a first platform to plan for the future possible therapeutic interventions in this condition in which no treatment exists.

“These findings uncover an important and previously unknown mechanism in the pathogenesis of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, furthermore, whole body as well as myocardial inflammation may serve as a therapeutic target for these patients in the future”.

An important step forward

Professor Metin Avkiran, our associate medical director, also commented on the exciting findings:

"Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is a serious stress-induced condition which affects mainly women and can cause long-lasting damage and scarring to the heart muscle. Surprisingly, there are still large gaps in our knowledge of its underlying biology. The discovery that it is accompanied by inflammation within the heart and in the rest of the body is an important step forward.

“We now need further research to understand if inflammation causes takotsubo cardiomyopathy and determine if drugs that target inflammation could be the key to fixing broken hearts.”

Read more about takotsubo