Heart Health

“Virtual Human” Shows How Stiff Arteries Raise BP

High blood pressure is highly age-related and affects more than 1 billion people worldwide. The condition is a major source of morbidity and mortality, because it makes individuals more prone to heart failure, stroke and kidney disease. Yet doctors can’t fully explain the cause of 90 per cent of all cases. Now a computer model of a “virtual human”, created by researchers at Norwegian University of Life Sciences, suggests that stiff arteries alone are enough to cause high blood pressure. The study was published in May 2014 in in PLOS Computational Biology.

A release from the university quotes first author Klas Pettersen as saying, “Our results suggest that arterial stiffness represents a major therapeutic target. This is contrary to existing models, which typically explain high blood pressure in terms of defective kidney function.”

The release notes that when blood pressure travels down the aorta from the heart, a special group of cells in the aortic wall called baroreceptors sense the pressure in this stretch of the aortic wall and sends signals with this information to the nervous system.

If the blood pressure is too high, these cells send stronger signals and the body is able to lower blood pressure. However, if the aorta gets stiffer, as typically happens with age, this stretch of the aorta is not as sensitive as it once was in measuring blood pressure. Thus, although a person’s blood pressure may have increased, the baroreceptors do not signal as intensively as they should and the body does not get the message to lower blood pressure.

“With the stiffening of the wall that follows aging, these sensors become less able to send signals that reflect the actual blood pressure. Our mathematical model predicts the quantitative effects of this process on blood pressure,” Pettersen said.

Stig W. Omholt, the senior investigator of the research project, adds,”If our hypothesis is proven right, arterial stiffness and baroreceptor signaling will become hotspot targets for the treatment of high blood pressure and the development of new medicines and medical devices. If we are to succeed in developing predictive, preventive and participatory medicine envisioned by so many, there is no substitute for building much stronger transdisciplinary ties between the life sciences, the mathematical sciences and engineering across the whole spectrum of basic, translational and applied research. And mathematical models of the human physiology will be at the core of this development.”

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