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VCU to Study Broken Heart Syndrome

Virginia Commonwealth University

Two years ago today, actress Debbie Reynolds died of a stroke – just one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher,  suffered a deadly heart attack.  Doctors say Reynolds may have died from  a condition called Broken Heart Syndrome, and with a grant from the National Institutes of Health  medical experts at Virginia Commonwealth University  hope to learn more about it.

When people show up at an emergency room with chest pain and shortness of breath, doctors often diagnose a heart attack caused by a blockage in the arteries, but another possible cause was first identified in Japan.

“Takotsubo  cardiomyopahthy is an unusual but probably under-recognized form of heart disease,” says  Jordana  Kron, a research scientist  at VCU.

“It’s an episode usually preceded by an emotional or physical stressor that causes the heart muscle not to squeeze properly, and this can lead to heart failure, rhythm problems and even stroke.”

Dr. Gerard Moeller directs the Center for Clinical and Translational Research at VCU.  He says Takasubo cardiomyopathy  -- commonly known as broken heart syndrome – may actually begin in the brain and lead to situations sometimes seen in society.

“It’s the way that the brain actually responds to stress that leads to this – the idea of being scared to death or somebody dies and their loved one dies soon after that.”

In addition to tragedy, he says, attacks can be triggered by the use of certain drugs or by withdrawal, and while the condition can be deadly, Kron says most people recover quickly.

“Usually patients have recovery of their heart function in one to two weeks, so that’s the good news, but the bad news is that along the way some patients suffer from very significant heart failure or life threatening rhythm problems.”   

To promote a better understanding of Broken Heart Syndrome, the National Institutes of Health has awarded more than $21 million to VCU, where cardiologists, psychiatrists and other medical experts plan to study it.