The heart is the most studied organ in our body, its general anatomy has been known for 100 years. Recently scientists at Liverpool University uncovered the heart’s complex and irregular three-dimensional geometry. The Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease has presented a new technological technique in order to image the human heart.

Our heartbeat is the motor behind everything we do and must be well coordinated in time. Specialist tissues; the SAN, AVN and the His-Purkinje system in our heart control our heartbeat. These have electrical properties across the heart to keep our motor running. However these tissues also depend on the geometry of the heart.

Until now, real heart tissue has been used to reconstruct the heart anatomy and to try and understand the specialist rhythm makers. Other methods of exploration include episcopic microscopy, MRI and micro-computed tomography (micro-CT). However these methods alone have not given specialists the insight they need to produce the full picture of the heart’s pacemaker anatomy. Although they are somewhat useful these existing methods are very restricted, only applicable to the Purkinje network or tricky to get right.

In Liverpool the big picture of the heart’s fine motor has been made clearer. Previously, low X-ray attenuation has ruled out micro-CT as a way to explore internal heart structure however combining micro-CT with iodine into heart tissues has been found to identify the structures of the rhythm conducting tissues.

This technique allows the visualisation of embryos and skeletal muscle in fine detail, allowing the technique to be transferred to distinguish between the surrounding contractile heart tissue and the pacemaker regions. New images taken are of the best resolution and produce the most clarified 3D representation of the heart pacemaker tissues within the mammalian heart.

Dr. Jonathan Jarvis, involved in this work, said: “These new anatomically-detailed images could improve the accuracy of future computer models of the heart and help us understand how normal and abnormal heart rhythms are generated.  3D imaging will give us a more thorough knowledge of the cardiac conduction system, and the way it changes in heart disease.

“Computer models based on these high-fidelity images will help us to understand why the heart rhythm is vulnerable to changes in heart size, blood supply, or scarring after a heart attack.

“One of the major concerns for surgeons in repairing malformed hearts, for example, is to avoid damage to the tissue that distributes electrical waves.  If they had access to 3D images of the conducting tissues in malformed hearts, however, it could be possible to understand where the conducting tissue is likely to be before they operate.”

The research published last month in PLoS ONE was a collaborative study with Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and the University of Manchester to better understand heart rhythm and anatomy.