Top Five: Matters of the heart
The best ways to mend a broken heart.
To mark Valentine’s Day 2012, we’ve searched the web to bring you the top five videos exploring ways that science can aid a broken heart. This selection doesn’t explore a broken heart in the metaphorical sense, but rather the vulnerability of the real version to damage and disease. From dead dogs to plastic pumps, these videos reveal the physical fragility of our most vital organ and the techniques that scientists are developing to care for it.
The human heart is an exquisitely powerful organ. Beginning to contract around 21 days after conception, it will develop into its adult state to beat, on average, 100,000 times a day, 3,600,000 times a year and 2.5 billion times a lifetime. Every day, it pumps a hefty 23,000 litres of blood around a network of blood vessels 60,000 miles long, around 1,000 times.
But if the heart is such a physical object, why is it so often poetically linked to our emotional states? We can be broken-hearted, cold-hearted, and chicken-hearted. We might have a change of heart, a wasted heart, or wear our heart on our sleeve. Some of us have a heart of gold, others a heart of stone. Idioms and metaphors like these have long held a place in popular culture.
The idea that the heart is capable of mental thought has its roots in ancient Greece, and the Aristotelian view that the heart is an intellectual thinker and memory-maker. This cardiocentric model considered the heart to be the main source of sensation and body heat. The brain on the other hand had little implication in its owner’s mentality, and was relegated to cooling the fiery temperatures issued by the heart.
It was only later in the second century that these ideas of the heart’s cognitive responsibilities were weakened. Advances in anatomical research, particularly the prolific surgical work of Roman physician Galen (c.130AD – c.210AD), showed the brain to be the origin of the nervous system (and thus sensation) and the heart to send blood to the body through arteries. From then on, the belief that the heart played a role as the body’s life support machine began to gain ground.
The idea of the heart as an emotional seat now has no place in science. We know that our emotions are ruled by our head, and not by our hearts. It is our brain that governs our mental thought. Yet Western culture maintains this metaphorical connection. The heart symbol - symmetrical and typically red – bears only a vague resemblance to the actual shape and structure of the human heart but has become a ubiquitous and iconic representation of affection. In the context of romance, the heart has evolved from something we can’t live without, to something we can’t love without either.
5. How do you mend a broken heart?
First up is a video already featured in our Best of the Web collection. Whilst it doesn’t offer any tips for coping with Valentine-induced heartbreak, this animation from the British Heart Foundation does illustrate how stem cells could be used to treat damaged heart tissue, which can’t repair or regenerate itself. A good introduction to the field of regenerative heart medicine.
4. Heart surgery on a knife edge
If you’ve ever been under a general anaesthetic, you wouldn’t have been aware of what else was going on in theatre at the time. In this episode from a recent Guardian video series exploring the science of the heart, we step over to the other side of the operating table to gain an insight into the pressures on anaesthetists to keep patients undergoing heart surgery alive. Dr Kevin Fong chats to Dr Bruce Martin, an anaesthetist at University College London Hospital, who uses a new 3D ultrasound simulator to monitor patient’s hearts.
Dr. Kevin Fong is guest curator of the ‘Heart to Heart’ event at the Royal Institution on Wednesday 15 February 2012, which will explore the story of human-to-human heart transplants.
3. Open heart surgery at the Wellcome Institute
"I am probably going to faint” is the remark from one audience member as he awaits a viewing of open heart surgery in this clip from the Guardian. The video might be a few years old but the expressions of awe and apprehension (and nausea) on the faces of those observing it are timeless. With its audience, the concept harks back to the ancient tradition of performing surgery in public. We’re far removed from the days of no antiseptic or anaesthetic, but the format still taps into our innate fascination with all things visceral. Not one for the faint-hearted.
2. The Good Heart Attack
How did the resurrection of dead dogs in Russia in the 1930s lead to hand-made heart attacks in modern-day London? This award-winning short film, pieced together by producer Uli Hesse and Dr Sean Davidson, threads together the history of cardiac arrest treatment with the paradoxical discovery that stopping the heart can make it stronger. Footage of a tiny animal heart, still beating whilst suspended in mid-air, is a highlight.
1. Heart Stop Beating
This video has also already secured a place in our Best of the Web collection, but its visionary story has earned it a second mention, as well as top spot. It tells the tale of two doctors - Billy Cohn & Bud Frazier from the Texas Heart Institute – who successfully replaced the heart of a man given 24 hours to live with a turbine that emits a continuous flow of blood. Without the unhappy ending its name would suggest, Heart Stop Beating is proof that life is possible without a pulse.