'Broken heart' syndrome linked to brain's reaction to stress, research finds

Broken heart syndrome: Could it happen to you?

“Broken heart" syndrome, a disease that causes the heart to temporarily weaken, has been linked to the brain’s reaction to stress, new research has found.

In an article published in the European Heart Journal on Tuesday, Swiss researchers said they found a connection between the way the brain communicates with the heart and broken heart syndrome, also called takotsubo syndrome (TTS).

Caused by intense emotional events, TTS is a rare, temporary condition that weakens the left ventricle and disrupts its normal pumping function.


For their research, Swiss neuroscientists and cardiologists conducted MRI brain scans on 15 TTS patients — on average, about a year after their diagnosis — and compared them to scans of 39 healthy people.

They specifically looked at four brain regions that control emotions, motivation, learning and memory and share information with each other. Two of the regions they analyzed, the amygdala and cingulate gyrus, help control the autonomic nervous system and heart function.

In their analysis of the scans, researchers were able to correlate the function of those regions with TTS.

“We found that TTS patients had decreased communication between brain regions associated with emotional processing and the autonomic nervous system, which controls the unconscious workings of the body, compared to the healthy people,” Christian Templin, research author and professor of cardiology at University Hospital Zurich said in a statement.

“For the first time, we have identified a correlation between alterations to the functional activity of specific brain regions and TTS, which strongly supports the idea that the brain is involved in the underlying mechanism of TTS. Emotional and physical stress are strongly associated with TTS, and it has been hypothesized that the overstimulation of the autonomic nervous system may lead to TTS events," Templin added.


However, researchers were unable to determine if the decrease in communication between the brain and the heart was the cause of TTS or vice versa because they didn't have MRI scans of the TTS patients’ brains at the time they developed the condition.

“Our results suggest that additional studies should be conducted to determine whether this is a causal relationship,” Dr. Jelena Ghadri, a senior research associate at the University Hospital Zurich and co-author of the study said.

“We hope this study offers new starting points for studying TTS in terms of understanding that it much more than ‘broken heart’ syndrome and clearly involves interactions between the brain and the heart, which are still not fully understood," Ghadri continued.

Symptoms of TTS — chest pain and shortness of breath — are similar to those of a heart attack.


"When you see this disease, takotsubo cardiomyopathy or the broken heart syndrome, there's an exorbitant amount of stress and all of those stress hormones you feel in your head get released into your body and it almost causes your heart to be stunned, these hormones in this stunned moment look like a heart attack,” Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a cardiologist, previously told Fox News.

Many people recover quickly from TTS, though in some rare cases it can be deadly. Steinbaum recommends anyone who experiences symptoms — such as shortness of breath, chest pain or palpitations — to see a doctor immediately.

TTS is more closely associated with sad events like the death of a loved one or the loss of a job, but intensely happy events such as a wedding or winning a lot of money are also linked to the condition.

Fox News’ Lindsay Carlton contributed to this report.

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