Scientists Have Successfully Used Beams of Light To Restore Heartbeat

Beams of light might be a good substitute for electric shocks in heart patients. Patients suffering from a heart rhythm disorder known as arrhythmia might find some relief thanks to recent technological headway. A team of scientists from Johns Hopkins and Germany’s University of Bonn have used experiments on mice and human heart models to demonstrate how light can replace electric shocks to help the patients recover.

This is an illustration depicting EKG readings before, during and after the use of light -- optogenetic deffibtillation -- to restore a normal heartbeat to an arrhythmic heart. Credit: Patrick M. Boyle/Johns Hopkins University
EKG readings before, during, and after the use of light to restore a normal heartbeat to an arrhythmic heart.
Credit: Patrick M. Boyle/Johns Hopkins University

The current treatment used on patients entails painful electrical impulses that can also be destructive to heart tissue. The new possibility, however, promises a safer way to tackle the disorder. This study might pave the way to gentler implantable defibrillators.

“We are working towards optical defibrillation of the heart, where light will be given to a patient who is experiencing cardiac arrest, and we will be able to restore the normal functioning of the heart in a gentle and painless manner,” says Natalia Trayanova, a scientist involved in the study.

The findings show that applying a light pulse to beating mouse hearts can restore normal rhythm. One of the lead authors, Tobias Bruegmann, says that their result “shows for the first time experimentally that light can be used for defibrillation of cardiac arrhythmia“.

This result was reproduced by using a computer model of the human heart to determine whether the technique could work for humans as well; MRI scans from a heart attack patient who was at risk of arrhythmia were taken to generate the model. According to the simulation, a light pulse directed at the heart can halt cardiac arrhythmia in the said patient, explains another lead author, Patrick M. Boyle.

The two experiments differed from one another, though, in terms of the light used: the one used for mice was blue light while that used on the human heart was red light which was more powerful to penetrate human tissue because of its longer wavelength.

This method can, however, only be used in practice until after researchers will have been able to develop implantable optical defibrillators – a process that might take around a decade.

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