A study in the journal Radiology has found that a heart disease protein is linked to early-stage brain damage. Heart and brain disease are both major health problems. Damage to these organs can occur before symptoms begin to appear.
Finding a biomarker like this that is a sign of heart disease or brain damage could help doctors initiate early recovery. The protein of interest is abbreviated NT-proBNP and is released when there is stress to the cardiac wall. The protein levels increase with heart problems and decrease as they improve.
Although links have been drawn between heart disease and brain damage, the association between this specific protein and the imaging markers of subclinical brain damage related to white matter integrity and brain volume still remained a mystery. This study was done in the Netherlands with about 2,000 elderly patients without clinical diagnosis of heart disease or dementia. The participants were drawn from a larger population study cohort of about 10,000 people in the suburb Rotterdam of the Netherlands as part of the Rotterdam Study.
Researchers discovered that higher levels of this heart disease protein was actually associated with more brain damage, manifested in smaller brain volume and poorer organization of the brain’s white matter. This study demonstrates the link between brain and heart health in healthy people.
The study’s lead author speculated as to why the heart disease protein led to brain damage. Decreased blood flow could cause cerebral microvascular damage or problems with the blood-brain barrier, which separates blood from brain matter. Inflammatory responses could also affect the barrier, which allows nutrients to pass through and keeps harmful substances out. Problems with the barrier could allow harmful substances into the brain and cause damage. The lead researcher believes that cardiac dysfunction causes brain damage most likely not the other way around.
More research still needs to be done with follow-up brain scans and measurement of the protein.
I wonder if these research findings can be used by expert witnesses to prove (or disprove) harm caused by a certain device, drug or incident. At the very least, I could see opposing counsel bringing this study up on cross examination or voir dire of the expert witness to undermine his or her credibility.