3D mapping explores atrial fibrillation in horses

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Australian and Danish researchers are collaborating from opposite ends of the globe to learn more about atrial fibrillation and other heart rhythm disorders in horses.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the University of Adelaide have used 3D mapping to learn more about atrial fibrillation, a disorder common among horses with a long training history — as well as humans.

Leading the experiment is Professor MSO and Veterinarian Rikke Buhl from the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen. She said researchers had managed to gain access to the left atrium of the horse’s heart to study the electrical impulses that are likely to initiate cardiac arrhythmia. “We were anxious to see whether this would be possible, but already now we have exciting new measurements.”

Columbus, a former trotter, is one of the horses taking part in the atrial fibrillation study.
Columbus, a former trotter, is one of the horses taking part in the atrial fibrillation study. © University of Copenhagen

The research came about after an international heart conference last year. It was attended by Professor Prashanthan Sanders, director of the Centre of Heart Rhythm Disorders at the Adelaide Medical School in Australia. Photos from a presentation by Denmark’s Equine Cardiac Group were an eye-opener for the Australian scientists as there are no similar animal models anywhere else in the world.

Professor Prashanthan Sanders
Professor Prashanthan Sanders

“By coming together from opposite ends of the world, we are now making new ground in our research,” said Sanders, who is leading the Australian arm of the project.

“These unique results have only been made possible by combining the University of Copenhagen’s equine expertise with our knowledge of cardiac mapping from the University of Adelaide. These results will provide insights for both clinical management of patients and also in the equine field.”

In March, the Danish and Australian teams successfully tested their methods on four initial horses. At the end of August, veterinarians from the University of Copenhagen tested the physical fitness of 13 trotters, performing ECGs, ultrasound scans and exercise tests on specially designed treadmills.

Now, the Australian heart specialists will map the hearts of those horses in 3D, by inserting small wires into the horse’s heart chambers. This will enable them to monitor the live, electrical impulses in the heart. They will also be able to observe when the horses experience atrial fibrillation.

Assisted by veterinarians from the University of Copenhagen, cardiology experts from the Australian University of Adelaide map the hearts of the horses in detailed 3D models.
Assisted by veterinarians from the University of Copenhagen, cardiology experts from the Australian University of Adelaide map the hearts of the horses in detailed 3D models. © University of Adelaide

“Exercise is healthy for us, but something seems to indicate that too much exercise over time can cause scar tissue on the heart musculature,” explains Buhl.

“The problem is that there are not many animals that exercise for long periods of time in the same way as we do. Horses are an exception. Therefore, by using horses as models, we can learn more about factors that may potentially improve the health – for both our species.”

Results from the collaboration will be presented at a European congress later this year. Two publications are also expected to be released within the next year.

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