Twisted Robot Hearts
March 4, 2014

Twisted Robot Hearts

I have always found the correlation between the heart and sensations of love and other positive emotions to be a strange one, ever since I was little. The heart is what pumps blood through our bodies, it expands and contracts to keep our circulation going, so how is it that our hearts are the source of feelings like love? Sure, when we feel these emotions, our heart beats faster as our blood starts rushing, and I could see that as the source of the misconception, but why has it stuck around. Now, we know that it is the mind that makes us who we are. Our brains are what regulate those signals that tell us what we are feeling, be it love, anger, joy, sadness, or whatever, so what is so important about the heart? It is just another muscle, right, albeit an important one. Okay, sure, I am trying to put logic to feelings, and that rarely turns out well for anyone, at least according to prime-time television and romantic comedies. My point being, if the heart is still seen as the source of emotion and humanity, what will mankind think of the heart being replaced?

A team of researchers from Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) has recently had a breakthrough in the form of a low-cost material that is programmable and able to replicate the twisting motion of the human heart, rather than just pumping. Something many people either forget or are not aware of, but the heart does not just pump. The heart circulates blood in a manner similar to wringing water out of a wet towel. The bottom twists counterclockwise while the top twists clockwise in what is known as the left ventricular twist, which is itself a measure of heart health. The heart moves in this way because of its many bundles of muscle fibers that are all oriented in the same direction, all working together in order to effect motion. While artificial hearts that pump blood can work, they do not do so in the same efficient manner as the true human heart, which can cause many problems within the body, as the artificial heart does not work in the manner that the body expects it to.

In addition to the potential uses this new material has as an implantable replacement heart, it can also be used by researchers and scientists to look more closely at what damage is done to a heart after events such as a heart attack. By mimicking the conditions of a heart attack, and programming the material to act just as a normal heart would act, researchers are able to view the damage in real-time and gain a better understanding of just what is being done to the heart during an attack. In this way, not only is this new material groundbreaking in terms of new, artificial heart implants, but also in helping scientists learn more about what can both prevent heart attacks as well as repair the damage caused by them.

Artificial or original, the heart remains the most important muscle in the human body. Without it, we cannot survive. So have a heart and lend your support to those working on making us a better replacement for it should our own ever fail us.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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