The first tick of a baby’s heart happens as early as 16 days after conception, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Oxford.
Initially, analysts said the heart muscle contracted to beat eight days after conception in mice, roughly equating to 21 days in a human pregnancy.
However, Oxford University teamed up with the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and found that the first heartbeat in babies happens much sooner.
BHF Professor Paul Riley, a leading researcher at the university said the team wanted to better understand how the heart develops.
“We are trying to better understand how the heart develops and ultimately what causes the heart defects that develop in the womb before birth and to extrapolate to adult heart repair,” Riley said.
“By finding out how the heart first starts to beat and how problems can arise in heart development, we are one step closer to being able to prevent heart conditions from arising during pregnancy,” he added.
Professor Riley also said that his team hope the findings could bring them closer to being able to mend damaged muscle following a heart attack.
“We also hope that this new research will help us to learn how the beating of new heart muscle cells might be triggered in replaced muscle after a heart attack,” he said.
The researchers demonstrated earlier beating of the heart in the embryos of mice that if extrapolated to a human’s heart, results in a beat as early as 16 days.
The team studied the developing mouse heart and found that the muscle began to contract as soon as it formed the cardiac crescent, which is an early stage in heart development.
This crescent forms 7.5 days after conception, becoming the equivalent of 16 days in the human embryo.
Congenital heart disease is found in around 1 in 180 births, which is around 4,000 each year or in 12 babies per day in the UK.
With the latest findings, researchers want to understand more about how the heart forms while in the womb hopefully prevent heart conditions from developing as a foetus grows.
The team added fluorescent markers to calcium molecules within the mouse embryo and saw precisely at which point in time the calcium signaled, as the trigger instructing our heart muscle cells to contract are able to become coordinated enough in order to produce a heartbeat.
With the research, it was discovered that a protein called NCX1 plays a primary role in the generation of the calcium signals required to make the beating action of the heart.
Professor Nilesh Samani, Medical Director at the BHF, which funded the research, said the research is “vital in understanding and ultimately preventing diseases that affect the heart.”