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Making the Heart-Brain Connection

ImagingMany of us already know the causes of cardiovascular disease--high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stress, and obesity—but when the heart is pumping inefficiently, how does it affect the brain? Lawrence Sweet, PhD, research psychologist, is studying just that question in his functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) heart-brain study at Butler Hospital.

With the support of a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Sweet and his colleagues are seeking to expand our understanding of how CVD affects the brain, not just the body. Using fMRI imaging, “we can look at attention span, memory, processing speed, and executive functions, like how a person plans tasks, so that we can understand what types of cognition are affected by CVD,” reports Sweet.

A type of specialized MRI scan, fMRI measures neural activity in the brain. FMRI is a valuable tool in brain mapping research. During the fMRI, participants complete memory testing, like matching symbols, repeating words, and other tests that measure reaction time.

Through this study, Dr. Sweet seeks to better understand the full impact of heart disease. According to Sweet, fMRI imaging is widely used in research, but hasn’t been developed for many clinical uses. “We are also seeking to find ways to improve the reliability and accuracy of functional brain imaging among older individuals, including those with cardiovascular disease and cognitive impairments, such as problems with memory or planning,” said Sweet.

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