Broken heart syndrome is an overwhelming ‘storm’ of the immune system

Why losing a loved one really CAN break your heart: Extreme emotional stress triggers a ‘storm’ of the immune system which overwhelms the organ

  • ‘Broken heart syndrome’ is thought to affect 6,000 British people a year
  • The heart muscles temporarily shut down, but it wasn’t understood why 
  • MRI scans of patients showed signs of a severe inflammatory immune response

Scientists have discovered why losing a loved one really may break your heart.

Researchers found extreme emotional stress triggers a ‘storm’ of the immune system which overwhelms the heart.

‘Broken heart syndrome’ – a condition thought to affect 6,000 people in Britain each year – occurs when acute distress causes the heart muscles to temporarily shut down.

Most of these cases are caused by sudden emotional shocks, often involving a bereavement or the breakdown of a relationship.

‘Broken heart syndrome’ – a condition thought to affect 6,000 people in Britain each year – occurs when acute distress causes the heart muscles to temporarily shut down. Researchers in Scotland found extreme emotional stress triggers a ‘storm’ of the immune system

Officially known as Takotsubo syndrome, symptoms include shortness of breath and chest pain – and as such it is often mistaken for a heart attack.

However, unlike a heart attack, patients do not suffer from a blockage of the arteries that supply the heart with blood. 

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Broken heart syndrome, known medically as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo syndrome, happens when the heart fails because of extreme stress.

It is usually triggered by an emotional event such as the death of a loved one.

The condition affects around 3,000 people a year in the UK, and is more common among women than men.

It causes part of the heart to become temporarily enlarged, preventing the organ from pumping blood properly. It can cause it to stop altogether.

Although broken heart syndrome is not triggered by disease – it isn’t linked to blocked arteries or high blood pressure – it is believed to be able to cause long-lasting damage by weakening the heart and affecting its pumping motion.  

Spokesperson for Cardiomyopathy UK, Dr Daniel Hammersley, said: ‘Patients who develop this condition generally experience symptoms of chest pain or breathlessness.

‘Fortunately, in the vast majority of cases the heart muscle function recovers within a few weeks. It is a rare condition overall. Most frequently it affects people in their 50s or 60s, although it has been seen in other age groups.’

Sources: Cardiomyopathy UK and the American Heart Association   

Instead, there is temporary weakening of the heart muscles and the left ventricle – the main pumping chamber – balloons in shape meaning it cannot properly push blood around the body.

When scientists in Japan first discovered the problem 30 years ago they thought the ventricle formed a similar shape to an octopus pot – or ‘takotsubo’ in Japanese – with a narrow neck and a round bottom.

But until now experts have been unsure what exactly caused this to happen.

The new research, by experts at the universities of Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh, reveals that the heart is attacked by the body’s own immune system.

The study, published in the Circulation medical journal, also showed that signs of the attack were still present five months later, which explains why some people remain unwell for a long time.

The researchers, who were funded by the British Heart Foundation, examined 55 patients with acute Takotsubo syndrome using sophisticated MRI scans.

The scientists found signs of a severe inflammatory immune response in the hearts of those with broken heart syndrome.

Professor Dana Dawson, who led the research, said: ‘We found that broken heart syndrome triggers a storm in the immune system which results in acute inflammation in the heart muscle.

‘The heart muscle then spills inflammatory signals that are circulating throughout the body.

‘We still don’t know if this is the cause of the broken heart syndrome itself or if it is a reactive response.

‘But it offers a first platform to plan for the future possible therapeutic interventions in this condition in which no treatment exists.’

The team believes their discovery may eventually pave the way for anti-inflammatory treatments to help treat the problem.

Professor Dawson added: ‘These findings uncover an important and previously unknown mechanism in the pathogenesis of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, furthermore, whole body as well as myocardial inflammation may serve as a therapeutic target for these patients in the future.’

Professor Metin Avkiran, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: ‘Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is a serious stress-induced condition which affects mainly women and can cause long-lasting damage and scarring to the heart muscle.

‘Surprisingly, there are still large gaps in our knowledge of its underlying biology. The discovery that it is accompanied by inflammation within the heart and in the rest of the body is an important step forward.

‘We now need further research to understand if inflammation causes Takotsubo cardiomyopathy and determine if drugs that target inflammation could be the key to fixing broken hearts.’

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