Cross-border collaboration to fix horse hearts – with added human bonus

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The team is using the state-of-the-art method to study heart rhythm disorders, in particular, atrial fibrillation - a condition common in both trained horses and humans.

By U2B Staff 

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Collaborating across borders, researchers from the University of Adelaide and the University of Copenhagen are using 3D mapping to learn more about heart disease in older horses that have been in training longterm. A major bonus is that the study could have lasting benefits for humans, as well as our four-legged friends.

The team is using the state-of-the-art method to study heart disease and rhythm disorders, in particular, atrial fibrillation – a condition common in both trained horses and humans.

The partnership between these two distant schools came about after a chance encounter at an international conference last year. While attending, Director of the Centre of Heart Rhythm Disorders at the Adelaide Medical School in Australia, Professor Prashanthan Sanders, was surprised by a presentation from colleagues at Copenhagen University’s Department of Biomedical Sciences and Denmark’s Equine Cardiac Group.

Sanders was struck by photos from the groups depicting the cardiac abnormality as he had not seen any similar animal models anywhere else in the world.


“By coming together from opposite ends of the world, we are now making new ground in our research,” said Sanders, who is leading the Australian arm of the project.

“These unique results have only been made possible by combining the University of Copenhagen’s equine expertise with our knowledge of cardiac mapping from the University of Adelaide. These results will provide insights for both clinical management of patients and also in the equine field.”

Although it’s still early days, the research is proving insightful and is already bearing fruit. Head of the experiment, Professor MSO and Veterinarian Rikke Buhl from the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, explained the team’s excitement in gaining access to the left atrium of the horse’s heart. This allows them to study the electrical impulses that are likely to initiate cardiac arrhythmia.

“We were anxious to see whether this would be possible, but already now we have exciting new measurements,” Buhl said.

“It’s almost like Christmas Eve. Many of us were not able to sleep last night, even though we had been up all day working yesterday and will continue to work like that for the rest of the week.”


Using the specialist expertise of Adelaide’s faculty and equipment, the team will now map the hearts of the sample horses in 3D. They achieve this by inserting small wires into the horse’s heart chambers, thus allowing them to monitor the live, electrical impulses in the heart. They will also be able to observe when the horses experience atrial fibrillation.

While the study is being conducted on horses, it could also have important implications for human patients. Buhl explains that, while exercise is good for us, too much can actually start to cause damage and strain on the heart. Conducting studies on this has proven difficult as there are very few animals that exercise regularly to the extent that humans do – except, that is, horses.

This closer look at the heart and atrial fibrillation will not only help researchers better understand the effects of training on horses, but also determine factors that may improve health for both species.