Mapping the Neurons of the Rat Heart in 3D

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An interdisciplinary team of researchers, including MBF Bioscience’s Dr. Susan Tappan and Maci Heal, have created a fully reconstructed, virtual 3D heart, digitally showcasing the heart’s unique network of neurons for the first time. The investigators in this study–appearing May 26 in the journal iScience–created a comprehensive map of the intrinsic cardiac nervous system at a cellular scale using MBF Bioscience’s Tissue Mapper and TissueMaker software. This map also allows for gene expression data to be superimposed within it, which can help determine the functional role that specific neuron clusters play. The researchers say this map will allow neurologists and cardiologists alike to more precisely study the neuroanatomy of the heart and lays the groundwork for developing virtual maps for other major organs.


Achanta, Gorky, Leung, Moss, Robbins, et al., iScience, 2020

This video shows a 3D model in rotation displaying the arrangement of intrinsic cardiac neurons in the rat heart


While people normally associate neurons with the brain, they play important roles in other organs as well. “Many cardiologists aren’t even aware there are neurons in the heart, let alone that they are critical to heart health,” says senior author James Schwaber, Director of the Daniel Baugh Institute for Functional Genomics and Computational Biology at Thomas Jefferson University. With the newly developed virtual framework, scientists can study the organization and function of the heart’s neurons at an unprecedented level of detail. “By using this 3D reference space, we can build a comprehensive picture of the heart’s structure which is foundational to address various health concerns.”


All the techniques and data used to create the mapping are made readily available through the NIH’s Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions program (SPARC), so other researchers can recreate and build upon the 3D framework–whether it be with other animal hearts or with other organs such as the liver or lungs. “The SPARC program has created an online portal that allows other research teams to access our and other’s data, empowering them to understand, expand, explore, and contribute to how we think about the innervation aspects of each organ of the body. Thereby, we can start to create a community that extends beyond a single area of focus onto all the integrative aspects of the brain and body,” says co-author Susan Tappan, the Scientific Director at MBF Bioscience. The SPARC online portal uses Biolucida, an image serving and management platform developed by MBF Bioscience to deliver full-resolution images to viewers over the web.

Read the full press release here: