Researchers Use Laser to Pace Embryo's Heart

Speeding up the pitter-patter of the heart may not require a stare into a lover's gaze or any extra time on the treadmill. Case Western Reserve researchers reported in a September issue of Nature Photonics that an infrared laser could do the trick.

Using pulsed light, the team paced contractions in an avian embryonic heart, with no apparent damage to the tissue. Their non-invasive device, they say, could prove effective as they investigate whether an embryo's heart rate is related to congenital defects later in life.

"The mechanisms behind many congenital defects are not well known," says Michael Jenkins, a Case Western Reserve biomedical engineer. "There is a suspicion that when the early embryonic heart beats slower or faster than normal, that changes gene regulation and changes development. This finding will allow us to continue to learn more about the relationship between heart rate in utero and heart problems later in life."

The investigators say the pulse of infrared light may create a temperature gradient in heart tissue that opens ion channels in a cascade along a heart cell, spurring along an electrical impulse that makes the heart contract. They are now experimenting with adult heart tissue to determine whether the laser could be used as an implantable pacemaker or to pace an adult heart during surgery or other clinical work