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Researchers Investigate How to Make the Heart Beat with Ultrasonic Waves

April 30, 2015

Researchers Investigate How to Make the Heart Beat with Ultrasonic Waves

Ultrasound, the imaging technology used by health professionals for sonograms and to view the heart and other organs, may also be effective in helping heart cells beat faster. That’s according to Drexel University researchers who published a study describing the ultrasound settings that can change the beat frequency of cardiac cells. The study was published ahead-of-print in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

The heart beating irregularly or stopping altogether is a life-threatening condition that must be treated immediately to avoid serious organ damage or death. Current ways of restoring and maintaining heart rate are invasive, involving electrodes threaded through the veins or placed surgically. Ultrasound is an attractive alternative because it can be applied non-invasively and would avoid the complications associated with surgery. Previous studies have shown that ultrasound at a high enough intensity can cause premature contractions and may be able to synchronize beating heart cells, suggesting the feasibility of an ultrasound pacemaking device.

“While at present it is unclear if prolonged capture and pacing of the myocardium with acoustic energy is possible, such technology would greatly impact the clinical practice of cardiology,” said study author Andrew Kohut, MD, assistant professor in the Division of Cardiology at Drexel University College of Medicine. “Acute cardiac pacing with ultrasound could be utilized for temporary pacing in both emergency and non-emergency settings, including heart attack and emergency life support in sudden cardiac arrest.”

Kohut and his colleagues at Drexel’s College of Medicine worked with engineers from Drexel’s School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems. They used a custom-made ultrasound probe to deliver ultrasonic waves to cardiac cells to determine the intensity and pulse duration that could influence the rate cells beat. The researchers found that the lowest intensity they tested, 0.02 W/cm2, given in 1 msec-long pulses every 300 msec, increased the beat frequency of cardiac cells most effectively.

“This is an exciting application of our ultrasound technology that has great potential for improving quality of life,” said study co-author Peter A. Lewin, PhD, the Richard B. Beard Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at Drexel University and director of Drexel’s Ultrasound Research and Education Center. “While ultrasound is something that we have studied for various uses over the years, being able to partner with the College of Medicine to explore these life-saving technologies gives them a great chance of reaching the people whom they can help.”

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