Science

Scientists reveal that the “love hormone” could actually heal your heart

Scientists reveal that the “love hormone” could actually heal your heart

Cardiology concept of heart treatment

A study found that oxytocin has heart-healing properties.

Oxytocin, sometimes known as the “love hormone,” could one day help heal damaged hearts after a heart attack, researchers have found.

The neurohormone oxytocin is widely known to strengthen social bonds and create pleasurable feelings, such as those associated with sex, exercise or art. However, the hormone has a number of other functions, such as the regulation of lactation and uterine contraction in women, and the regulation of ejaculation, sperm transport and testosterone production in men.

Now, scientists from Michigan State University have shown that oxytocin has another, so far unknown, function in zebrafish and human cell cultures: it stimulates stem cells from the outer layer of the heart (epicardium) to migrate to its middle layer (myocardium), where they develop into cardiomyocytes, the muscle cells that cause heart contractions. This discovery could one day be used to stimulate the regeneration of the human heart after a heart attack. The researchers’ findings were recently published in a journal Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology.

“Here we show that oxytocin, a neuropeptide also known as the love hormone, is capable of activating cardiac repair mechanisms in injured hearts in zebrafish and human cell cultures, opening the door to potential new therapies for cardiac regeneration in humans,” said Dr. Aitor Aguirre, assistant professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, and senior author of the study.

Stem cells can replace cardiomyocytes

After a heart attack, cardiomyocytes often die in large numbers. They cannot renew themselves because they are highly specialized cells. Previous research, however, has found that a subset of cells in the epicardium can be reprogrammed to become stem-like cells known as Epicardium-derived Progenitor Cells (EpiPCs), which can regenerate not only cardiomyocytes but also other types of cardiac cells.

“Think of EpiPC as the stone masons who repaired cathedrals in Europe in the Middle Ages,” Aguirre explained.

Unfortunately, under natural conditions, EpiPC production is ineffective for human heart regeneration.

Zebra could teach us how to regenerate hearts more efficiently

Enter the zebrafish: known for its remarkable ability to regenerate organs, including the brain, retina, internal organs, bones and skin. They don’t suffer from heart attacks, but its many predators are happy to bite into any organ, including the heart – so a zebrafish can regrow a heart when even a quarter is lost. This is partly achieved by the proliferation of cardiomyocytes, but also by EpiPC. But how do EpiPC zebrafish repair the heart so effectively? And can we find a ‘magic bullet’ in zebrafish that could artificially increase EpiPC production in humans?

Yes, and this ‘magic bullet’ appears to be oxytocin, the authors claim.

To reach this conclusion, the authors found that in zebrafish, within three days after cryoinjury—injury caused by freezing—of the heart, the expression of the messenger[{” attribute=””>RNA for oxytocin increases up to 20-fold in the brain. They further showed that this oxytocin then travels to the zebrafish epicardium and binds to the oxytocin receptor, triggering a molecular cascade that stimulates local cells to expand and develop into EpiPCs. These new EpiPCs then migrate to the zebrafish myocardium to develop into cardiomyocytes, blood vessels, and other important heart cells, to replace those which had been lost.

A similar effect on human tissue cultures

Crucially, the authors showed that oxytocin has a similar effect on human tissue in vitro. Oxytocin – but none of 14 other neurohormones tested here – stimulates cultures of human Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (hIPSCs) to become EpiPCs, at up to twice the basal rate: a much stronger effect than other molecules previously shown to stimulate EpiPC production in mice. Conversely, genetic knock-down of the oxytocin receptor prevented the regenerative activation of human EpiPCs in culture. The authors also showed that the link between oxytocin and the stimulation of EpiPCs is the important ‘TGF-β signaling pathway’, known to regulate the growth, differentiation, and migration of cells.

Aguirre said: “These results show that it is likely that the stimulation by oxytocin of EpiPC production is evolutionary conserved in humans to a significant extent. Oxytocin is widely used in the clinic for other reasons, so repurposing for patients after heart damage is not a long stretch of the imagination. Even if heart regeneration is only partial, the benefits for patients could be enormous.”

Aguirre concluded: “Next, we need to look at oxytocin in humans after cardiac injury. Oxytocin itself is short-lived in circulation, so its effects in humans might be hindered by that. Drugs specifically designed with a longer half-life or more potency might be useful in this setting. Overall, pre-clinical trials in animals and clinical trials in humans are necessary to move forward.”

Reference: “Oxytocin promotes epicardial cell activation and heart regeneration after cardiac injury” by Aaron H. Wasserman, Amanda R. Huang, Yonatan R. Lewis-Israeli, McKenna D. Dooley, Allison L. Mitchell, Manigandan Venkatesan and Aitor Aguirre, 30 September 2022, Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology.
DOI: 10.3389/fcell.2022.985298

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association, and the Spectrum-MSU Foundation. 





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