Cardiac: Effect of strong emotion on the heart

If people with arrhythmia suffer a severe shock or strong emotion, it can affect the electrical behaviour of their heart, potentially ‘short circuiting’ and leading to heart failure. For example, there are stories of people who have a heart attack after their house has burnt down, and studies show that the number of arrhythmia-related heart attacks in a population doubles the month after a bad earthquake.

However, there is little experimental data on exactly how the heart muscle is affected. An ECG (electrocardiogram), which uses sensors on your skin, can tell us the heart’s electrical activity has changed – but not how or why. To do this, you need to have sensors on the heart muscle itself.

We have patients who, as part of a planned medical procedure, have sensors placed directly on or in their heart. Some have agreed to help us research the emotional response. They watch a five minute clip from the film ‘Vertical Limit’, where a family has to make a life-threatening decision under stressful circumstances. We record information about their heart’s electrical activity, as well as their blood pressure and breathing.

The results are fascinating, and match up with work on heart cells that have been grown in the lab. This cutting edge research will help us to understand the effects of shock and trauma on those with mild arrythmias, and develop better monitoring and treatments for them.