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06-10 The effect of the heart on the brain

The effect of the heart on the brain

Stop what you’re doing right now. Can you feel your heart beating without putting your hand on your chest?

You probably can’t. Don’t be alarmed, that’s perfectly normal: Most people can’t normally feel their heartbeat. Why is that?

A research team from the Center for Neuroprosthetics at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland asked that same question. They discovered an interesting relationship between the brain and the heart.

Filtering out distractions

Initially, the research team conducted experiments with a pool of over 150 volunteers. The study’s subjects were shown a flashing octagon projected on a screen. When the shape was synchronized with the subjects’ heartbeats, they had a harder time perceiving it.

Next, the research team conducted the same experiment in an MRI scanner. When the flashing shape was out of sync with the subjects’ heartbeats, the MRI showed a normal level activity in the subjects’ insular cortex – a region of the brain involved in motor control and perception. The subjects reported being able to perceive the flashing shape normally.

However, when the flashing was synced with the subjects’ heartbeat, something changed: Activity in the insular cortex dropped considerably. The subjects were likewise less aware – or in some cases, unaware – of the flashing shape. This suggested to the researchers visual information is perceived less well if it’s synchronized with the heartbeat.

“We are not objective, and we don’t see everything that hits our retina like a video camera does. The brain itself decide what information to bring to awareness. But what’s surprising is that our heart also affects what we see,” said study co-author Roy Salomon, Ph.D., in an EPFL press release.

Their findings may provide a greater understanding of how anxiety affects the body.

Anxiety and the heart

The EPFL’s findings may suggest a connection between being aware of one’s heartbeat and anxiety. Patients with anxiety often report being aware of their heartbeat more than others. “But someone who does not suffer from this type of disorder can also be aware of their heartbeat. This can happen at times of intense excitement or fear, for example,” said Salomon.

Also, the team stresses a perception of one’s heartbeat isn’t necessarily a cause of anxiety disorders. “We don’t know that yet,” said Salomon. “What we do know is that, under most conditions, we are not aware of our own heartbeat and that there is a specific region of the brain whose task is to suppress it.”

What is known is many people with anxiety – particularly severe anxiety – experience symptoms involving their heart. Heart palpitations – the sensation that one’s heart is pounding, racing or skipping beats – are a well-known anxiety symptom. Some people even experience paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia (PSVT), an instance of very rapid heartbeat associated with panic attacks.

Getting treatment

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million Americans. They’re treatable disorders, but the ADAA also says that only one-third of the people with an anxiety disorder receive treatment for it. The numbers are more dire for children; according to the Child Mind Institute’s Children’s Mental Health Report 80 percent of kids with a diagnosed anxiety disorder never get treated.

Sovereign Health’s Rancho San Diego facility offers a residential treatment program for adolescents aged 12 to 17. Our staff of compassionate experts helps patients overcome their difficulties to reach their full potential. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at news@sovhealth.com.

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