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Powering artificial pacemakers with heart contractions

Pacemakers like this rely on batteries to regulate heartbeats (Image: J. Heuser, Wikipedia Commons)

Have you ever asked yourself how the heart beats? You have probably heard that the heart has a pacemaker that regulates its rhythm, and this is indeed true. The chief pacemaker of the heart is the Sinoatrial node (SA node), located on the top right portion of the heart. It sends out a signal that descends down and to the left through nerve fibers that induce contraction of the heart in a coordinated fashion. The SA node has a natural rhythm but is also under the control of parasympathetic and sympathetic nerve fibers which can decrease and increase the heart rate, respectively.

Quite often, there are cases where individuals suffer from aberrant heart rhythms -- this can occur congenitally (from birth), due to later pathology, and also, due to injury (eg after heart attacks). In some of these cases, the best therapeutic management is the implantation of an artificial pacemaker to convert such irregular heartbeats into more physiologically correct rhythms. One drawback to this however, is that these pacemakers derive their energy source from batteries. When the energy source becomes exhausted, these batteries need to be exchanged, leading to repeated surgical intervention over a lifetime.

Researchers at the University of Michigan sought to solve this problem. On the university's engineering website they state: "Engineering researchers at the University of Michigan designed a device that harvests energy from the reverberation of heartbeats through the chest and converts it to electricity to run a pacemaker or an implanted defibrillator." The potential of these devices are tremendous. Not only could they serve to decrease repeated visits to the surgical theatre, but they would likely reduce long-term costs as well.

Though a prototype has not yet been build, the researchers have designed a blueprint and claim the concept of their design would work. Some time will have to pass before such a device will be tried and tested but hopefully this innovative solution will come to fruition in a timely fashion.

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