'We’re aiming to use the heart as a window to brain'

A single culprit – the slow build of sticky fat and other proteins – lies behind two of the most devastating diagnoses in elderly people.

Plaque, researchers know, narrows arteries and disrupts communication among brain cells. Its accumulation can lead to cardiomyopathy, which makes it difficult for the heart to deliver blood to the body, as well as Alzheimer’s disease.

A team at MUSC takes that concept one step further: Is it the same type of plaque causing heart and brain problems? And, if so, could one treatment stop both diseases?

After purifying plaque from the heart, those researchers discovered three proteins common to both cardiomyopathy and Alzheimer’s patients, according to Dr. Federica del Monte. “People with heart failure often have cognitive dysfunction,” del Monte said. “It is known that the heart doesn’t pump blood to the brain, but we think there is more to this.”

A recent gift from a local couple catapulted the work of del Monte and her team, moving them into studies with patients by fall. Stuart and Sheila Christie, both MUSC heart patients since the 1990s, sought to honor their cardiologist, Dr. James Glenn, through a contribution.

Sheila and Stuart Christie at their home. 

Dr. Glenn researches autonomic dysfunction, or failure of the autonomic nervous system, which controls the heart, bladder, intestines and more. When Dr. Glenn reported back to the Christies on the groundbreaking work of Del Monte and their fellow researchers, the couple pledged further support.   

“After 28 years of going to the same doctor, you get in and start chatting,” Mrs. Christie said. “Dr. Glenn is really passionate about this opportunity, because there’s nothing like it in the world. As we talked about it at home, we decided we really would like to honor him this way.”

The Christie Family Heart and Brain Center will mark the first hybrid neuro-cardio center in the world. In addition to cutting-edge research, the center also will engage MUSC’s wellness team to design exercises for cardiomyopathy and Alzheimer’s patients, according to del Monte, since diet and exercise reduce plaque.

Her team will examine cardiomyopathy and Alzheimer’s patients in Italy and the United States and explore whether the diseases progress in a parallel way. Initial studies should begin this fall.

Because the heart isn’t insulated by a skull, and because the muscle moves, heart conditions are easier to study, del Monte explained. Her team will learn if the biological defect matches in Alzheimer’s patients and also extract heart cells to test drugs to combat plaque.

“We’re aiming to use the heart as a window to brain,” she said.

The Christie family’s gifts span multiple departments at MUSC – from Storm Eye Institute to the College of Health Professions. Mr. Christie’s career as an executive with Johnson & Johnson kept the family on the periphery of medicine for decades and informed the philanthropic interests of the couple’s three grown children as well.    

This heart-brain project, the Christies agree, could change the landscape of treatment for countless patients to come. “Neither one of us realized the magnitude of the project when it started out,” Mrs. Christie said. “This is something that will really benefit people in the future.”