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A consortium directed by Dr. Kalyanam Shivkumar at UCLA has received a three-year, $8.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The consortium hopes to map the heart’s nervous system, ultimately developing new treatments for cardiovascular disease.

The award is from an NIH program called Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions, or SPARC, which supports research on how the electrical signals of the peripheral nerves that connect the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body control internal organ function.

Professor David Paterson, who is part of the seven-strong team collaborating in this research noted that “Many diseases of the cardiovascular system are also diseases of the autonomic nervous system. Traditionally both systems have been studied extensively in isolation.  This is the first major strategic initiative in the world that has funded a framework where leading groups can work together to re-assemble cardiac and neural information to better understand heart-brain and brain-heart interactions.”

Principal investigators at the other institutions are Dr. Kalyanam Shivkumar at UCLA, Dr. Viviana Gradinaru of Caltech, Dr. Stephen Liberles of Harvard University, Dr. Charless Fowlkes of UC Irvine, Dr. Irving Zucker of the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Dr. Beth Habecker of Oregon Health and Science University.

Dr. Kalyanam Shivkumar, the lead investigator, said the complexity of understanding the heart’s nervous system requires a collaborative approach. “Our goal is to precisely map the heart’s anatomy and code the function of the nerves that control the heart from a very basic level all the way to clinical studies in humans,” he said in a statement. This team is one of 27 such multidisciplinary teams that received a total of $20 million this year through the SPARC program.

Cardiovascular (heart and circulatory) disease causes more than a quarter of all deaths in the UK; nearly 160,000 deaths each year. The autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system responsible for control of the bodily functions such as breathing, the heartbeat, and digestive processes which we do not consciously control, has been implicated in many cardiovascular disease processes. David Paterson explains that “What is becoming apparent is the powerful influence the nervous system has on the heart and its excitability, especially in states of overt cardiovascular disease”. This is explored in more detail in his recent publication Sympathetic neurons are a powerful driver of myocyte function in cardiovascular disease