All you need is love. Well, all you need is oxytocin, really. That’s the brain’s “love hormone.” When it’s released into our bloodstream by our hypothalamus, it helps us bond with others and feel happy. And it turns out it could also be the key to healing a broken heart.
And we mean the real kind of broken heart – this hormone may be able to help cardiac health after a heart attack, at least according to a study using zebrafish and human cells.
Studying how to heal a broken heart
Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology published the study, which found that oxytocin also has the ability to “promote the regeneration of the heart after an attack.”
According to IFL Science (cited below): “During a heart attack, cardiomyocytes – highly specialized cells responsible for heart contractions – die off. This can be a problem as they cannot replenish themselves.”
However, it appears that a subset of cells in the outer layer of the heart can undergo reprogramming and become something calls Epicardium-derived Progenitor Cells (EpiPCs). The cool thing about EpiPCs is that they can eventually become different types of heart cells, including the ones that are killed off during a heart attack.
Unfortunately, these EpiPCs need some help since they can’t regenerate fully under normal conditions. That’s why researchers looked at zebrafish.
Zebrafish are able to regrow parts of their heart. Naturally, scientists wanted to see just how they managed to do it so efficiently in the hopes that they could spur this regeneration in humans.
The role of oxytocin
The experiments involved injuring the hearts of zebrafish (through freezing them). Researchers found that the genetic material that leads to oxytocin production showed a 20-fold increase in the brain. This triggered a biological process that ended in some cells turning into EpiPCs and migrating to the heart to develop into cardiomyocytes.
“Here we show that oxytocin, a neuropeptide also known as the love hormone, is capable of activating heart repair mechanisms in injured hearts in zebrafish and human cell cultures, opening the door to potential new therapies for heart regeneration in humans,” lead author Dr. Aitor Aguirre said in a news release.
Now, the question is whether we can make something similar happen in humans.
It turns out it may be possible. But we’ll have to find a way to activate the production of oxytocin in order to produce EpiPCs.
“Oxytocin is widely used in the clinic for other reasons, so repurposing for patients after heart damage is not a long stretch of the imagination. Even if heart regeneration is only partial, the benefits for patients could be enormous,” Aguirre added.
Next steps towards healing a broken heart
Now, the team will need to look at oxytocin production in humans who have experienced cardiac injuries as well as drugs that can stimulate oxytocin production. But before working on humans, it’ll have to go through a pre-clinical trial stage.
“Next, we need to look at oxytocin in humans after cardiac injury. Oxytocin itself is short-lived in the circulation, so its effects in humans might be hindered by that. Drugs specifically designed with a longer half-life or more potency might be useful in this setting. Overall, pre-clinical trials in animals and clinical trials in humans are necessary to move forward,” Aguirre concluded. — WTF fun facts