Otago researchers have made a surprising discovery which could improve survival rates for people who suffer a heart attack.
Many people can die within a few hours of an attack, because the brain over-stimulates nerves that control heart function.
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An acute heart attack is one of the most common causes of death in the western world, with prompt treatment helping limit damage.
"The event itself is fairly short, but the damage is long-term," HeartOtago Associate Professor Daryl Schwenke said.
When a person has a heart attack, the brain thinks the heart is damaged, so it sends even stronger signals to it.
But telling the heart to work harder is not what it needs.
Blocking the oxytocin cells in the brain helps to regulate the signals, making sure the heart doesn't feel stressed and functions at a natural rate.
"So this is a very novel strategy which is targeting an organ which is independent of the heart, yet has the potential to improve heart function," Professor Schwenke said.
Researchers from Dunedin Hospital and Otago University discovered that oxytocin cells - usually associated with labour contractions and breastfeeding - also have a role in regulating heart function.
"It was quite surprising to identify that these cells within the brain also play a key role in telling the brain to overstimulate the heart," he said.
The experimental treatment needs to be administered intravenously as soon as possible after a heart attack, by a paramedic at the scene, or in an ambulance on the way to hospital.
More pre-clinical studies are needed to confirm the therapy's effectiveness, but there's hope it could be ready for widespread use within five years.