The University of Ottawa and its partners take a leadership role in understanding the heart-brain connection

The University of Ottawa and its partners take a leadership role in understanding the heart-brain connection

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image: “We’re going to bring the brain and the heart together with the goal of really understanding how they’re connected as a functional unit.”
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Credit: University of Ottawa

Led by Principal Investigator Peter Liu, MD, of the uOttawa School of Medicine and the University of Ottawa Heart Institute (UOHI), a team of multidisciplinary researchers received a highly competitive IMPACT Heart-Brain Connection Award from $2.9 million.

The medical profession has traditionally imposed an artificial separation between the heart and the brain, treating them with separate specialties and separate priorities. But emerging research shows that these all-important vascular organs are deeply interconnected: what affects an individual’s heart can set off a cascade of damaging effects in the brain, and vice versa.

Now, innovative researchers from the uOttawa Medical School and partner institutes are joining forces to forge a paradigm shift for neurocardiac care, essentially bridging the gap between heart and brain in modern medicine. It has the potential to revolutionize patient care for millions here in Canada and many more around the world.

Directed by principal investigator Dr. Peter Liu, a team of multidisciplinary researchers proud winners of the inaugural Heart-Brain Connection IMPACT Award from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada in alliance with Brain Canada. After rigorous evaluation, the uOttawa-led team will receive a $2.9 million grant to study critical questions linking heart and brain health, one of two groups across the country to receive this important new reward.

The four-year project will work on issues connecting heart and brain health with the goal of improving patient outcomes. Among other things, the team aims to develop new diagnostic blood tests and new ways to capture cutting-edge images of the heart and brain. With partner patients, Dr. Liu says they will also test new treatments that can be used to protect both organs.

Receiving this highly competitive grant is the ultimate external validation and financial support for Dr. Liu and Dr Ruth Slack, uOttawa Medical School professors who are leaders in unraveling the two-way dialogue between the heart and the brain. They have set their sights on nothing less than revealing how our heart and brain systems interact, coordinate, and co-regulate with each other, unraveling a historical disconnect and potentially transforming care for a dizzying number of disorders in the process.

Dr. Slack describes the success of this latest grant as a “critical stepping stone to global leadership” in understanding the complex heart-brain connection and bringing together top talent from across Canada and the world.

“The brain and heart have become completely separate over the years, so there is limited understanding of how they interact. We are going to put them together with the goal of really understanding how they are connected as a functional unit,” says Dr. Slack. “We believe this is the key to treating chronic conditions related to the brain and heart.”

Both professors in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the uOttawa School of Medicine, Dr. Liu is the chief scientific officer and vice president for research at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute (UOHI), and Dr. Slack is Director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Ottawa (uOBMRI).

The impact of brain and heart disorders on patients and health systems could not be more profound. From cognitive decline to heart failure, they represent one of the world’s greatest health care challenges, accounting for 32% of all global deaths and 50% of all disease-related disabilities. In Canada alone, one person dies every five minutes from heart disease, stroke, or vascular cognitive impairment.

Dr. Liu says the latest support from two leading Canadian organizations couldn’t come at a better time.

“It lays the foundation for more opportunities by bringing together top research leaders and helps us advance the network we are building brick by brick,” he says. “It’s really very exciting.”

In fact, when it comes to exploring the heart-brain connection, momentum is building at uOttawa and its affiliated institutes.

In recent years, Dr. Liu and Dr. Slack spearheaded the creation of the groundbreaking Center of Excellence for Cardio-Neuro-Mind Research (HCNMR)), which in 2021 received $5.8 million from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI). This was later matched with a further $5.8 million from the Ontario Research Fund.

Hosted in uOttawa, it is Canada’s first multi-specialty, multi-disciplinary research group investigating the shared mechanisms underlying heart and brain health challenges. It includes leading experts from UOHI, uOBMRI, the Royal Institute for Mental Health Researchthe Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI), and other prominent research institutions across Canada.

To be sure, there is a palpable hands-on attitude here in the nation’s capital to reveal the intricacies of the heart-brain connection. “In the city of Ottawa, we basically have all the hospital institutes, the university, and various colleges all committed, excited, and working on this program,” says Dr. Slack.

Collaborating to improve health is the team’s vision, according to Dr. Liu. And at the end of the day, solving the mysteries of the heart-brain connection is always about improving patient outcomes.

“Our patients are the key to telling us what is important so that we are equal partners with them as we work to solve these problems,” says Dr. Liu. “That’s really why we do what we do.”


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