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3D X-ray provides window into heart health

The high-res images could help researchers better understand the conducting tissue that triggers each heartbeat.

The researchers say these are the first 3D representations of the cardiac conduction system within a single intact mammalian heart. University of Liverpool

Researchers at the University of Liverpool say they have developed a new imaging technique that will help them identify, and thus analyze, tissue fibers in the heart that control whether the muscle beats regularly.

Using a micro CT scanner, the team imaged hearts whose tissue had been highlighted using iodine. The scientists discovered that certain tissue -- the conducting tissue that sends an electrical wave to trigger each heartbeat -- absorbed less of the solution than the muscular tissue.

This contrast made it easier to identify which tissue was producing electrical activity in 3D, which has until this study had been difficult to see.

"These new anatomically-detailed images could improve the accuracy of future computer models of the heart and help us understand how normal and abnormal heart rhythms are generated," Jonathan Jarvis, lead author of the study that appears this month in the journal PLoS ONE, said in a school news release.

Jarvis goes on to explain that these high-fidelity 3D images will help researchers build far more detailed computer models that in turn help better understand why the heart rhythm is vulnerable to changes in blood supply, scarring after a cardiac arrest, and even organ size.

As one example, Jarvis says: "One of the major concerns for surgeons in repairing malformed hearts...is to avoid damage to the tissue that distributes electrical waves. If they had access to 3D images of the conducting tissues in malformed hearts, however, it could be possible to understand where the conducting tissue is likely to be before they operate."

The team collaborated with the University of Manchester and the Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool.