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Painless Heart Technology

Texas Heart Institute’s pain-free defibrillation technology won the 2020 edition of the Create the Future design contest that is held every year. Texas Heart Institute is located in Houston, TX, and has doctors, scientists, and engineers who work hard to learn how and why heart disease (also called cardiovascular disease) happens.

They also look for new ways to help people with heart disease (heart patients) get well and to create new treatments that are less invasive, which means that heart doctors (called cardiologists) do not have to cut into a person's body or do not have to do that as often. Texas Heart Institute scientists had help from other scientists at Rice University and UCLA, and they hope to change the way cardiac arrhythmias (a heart that does not beat correctly) are taken care of by doctors. This way heart patients do not feel the pain that they normally would feel when a defibrillator helps the heart.

Sometimes medicines can be used to make the heart work correctly. When medicines do not work, doctors can implant (place in the body) a defibrillator (also called an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator or an ICD). A defibrillator is a device that is put in the body to make a heart beat correctly by sending an electric pulse or shock to the heart. It fixes a heartbeat that is too slow or too fast. A defibrillator can also start the heart beating again if the heart suddenly stops. The shock that changes the rhythm back to normal is called defibrillation.

Most heart patients say that the shock feels like a sudden jolt or thump to the chest. Some heart patients black out (faint) when their heart stops beating correctly or suddenly stops, so they may not feel anything when the shock is given. If a person touches the heart patient when receiving a shock, the person may feel a small muscle jerk, but it will not hurt them. Some heart patients feel worried and anxious because they do not know when the pain from the shock is going to happen. The new defibrillator can help the heart without using a shock.

Doctors place up to 12 tiny nodes (or points) around the heart. Nodes are a point where two or more circuit elements are connected together, like in a computer (see photo). Instead of shocking the heart, the nodes spread energy throughout the muscle from where the nodes are placed. This lessens or reduces the feeling of a sudden jolt, and sometimes the heart patient may not even notice the jolt.

The new defibrillator is safer in the body too. It is much tinier and does not need a battery. It also does not have the usual wires (known as leads) that send electrical pulses to the heart. This is good because sometimes those leads can break away, split within the body, and get infected. Because the new defibrillator is wireless and smaller, doctors can place it in areas of the heart that are harder to reach than the larger defibrillators. Each node can be individually programmed to stimulate different areas of the heart and in different ways.

The hope is that the new defibrillator will be ready to be used in heart patients in a few more years. Watch this video to learn more.


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