Brain waves and heart flutters

Though people might not be able to feel it, the brain regulates natural rhythms in heartbeat and blood pressure – and now we know how.
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Illustration showing a heart and a brain connected. Image credit: Public domain (Pixabay)

Stand up too fast and you know what happens next. You will feel faint as the blood rushes away from your head. Gravity pulls the blood into your legs, and your blood pressure drops. To correct this imbalance, the brain sends nerve impulses telling the heart to beat faster and the outer blood vessels to tighten. This is the autonomic nervous system at work. It is how the brain adjusts cardiac output, and quietly controls other internal organs in the body. It involves two key regions of the brain, the hypothalamus and the brainstem, and stimulates smooth muscles and glands around the body.

The cardiovascular system also responds to the demands of exercise, with the heart supplying fresh blood laden with oxygen and the blood clearing out waste materials as it flows around the body. Perhaps surprisingly, blood pressure and heart rate fluctuate even at rest. The heart beats faster when breathing in and slower when breathing out. People’s blood pressure, the force that keeps blood moving through arteries, also oscillates in so-called Mayer waves that last about 10 seconds.

Much of the current understanding of the inner workings of the cardiovascular system – and how it is regulated by the brain – stems from animal experiments. This is because few attempts have been made to simultaneously measure how a person’s brain and cardiovascular system work with enough detail to see how brain waves and cardiac oscillations might interact.

To achieve this, Manuel et al. have now measured the brain activity, pulse and blood pressure of twenty-two healthy people while they were lying down in an MRI machine. This revealed that three distinct parts of the hypothalamus regulate cardiovascular output in humans. These ‘subsystems’ communicate with each other and with the lower brainstem, which sits beneath the hypothalamus. Manuel et al. also observed that the rhythmic activity of these subsystems runs in sync with oscillations typically seen in heart rate and blood pressure.

With this work, Manuel et al. have shown that it is feasible to measure different systems of cardiovascular control in humans. In time, with further experiments using this new approach, the understanding of chronic high blood pressure and heart failure may improve.