uOttawa and partners embrace leadership role in understanding heart-brain connection

Faculty of Medicine
Research and innovation
University of Ottawa Heart Institute

By David McFadden

Research Writer, University of Ottawa

Blue background with a sketch of head with a brain connected to the heart
Led by principal investigator Dr. Peter Liu from uOttawa’s Faculty of Medicine and the University of Ottawa Heart Institute (UOHI), a team of multidisciplinary researchers are recipients of a highly competitive $2.9M Heart-Brain Connection IMPACT Award.

The medical profession has traditionally imposed an artificial separation between the heart and the brain, treating them with separate specialties and isolated priorities. But emerging research shows these all-important vascular organs are deeply interconnected: What impacts an individual’s heart can set into motion a cascade of damaging effects on the brain, as well as the other way around.

Now, innovative investigators from the uOttawa Faculty of Medicine and partner institutes are joining forces to forge a paradigm shift for neurocardiac care, essentially bridging the heart-brain divide in modern medicine. It has the potential to revolutionize patient care for millions here in Canada, and many more around the world.

Led by principal investigator Dr. Peter Liu, a team of multidisciplinary researchers are proud recipients of the inaugural Heart-Brain Connection IMPACT Award from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada in partnership with Brain Canada. After a rigorous assessment, the uOttawa-led team is being awarded a $2.9M grant to study critical questions linking heart and brain health, one of just two groups across the country to receive this major new award. 

The four-year project will work on matters connecting heart and brain health with the goal of improving patient outcomes. Among other things, the team aims to develop new diagnostic blood tests and novel ways to capture cutting-edge imaging of the heart and the brain. With patient partners, Dr. Liu says they will also test new treatments that can be used to protect both organs.

Receiving this highly competitive grant is the latest external validation and financial support for Dr. Liu and Dr. Ruth Slack, uOttawa Faculty of Medicine professors who are leaders in unraveling the two-way dialogue between the heart and brain. They have set their sights on nothing less than unveiling how our heart and brain systems interact, coordinate and co-regulate each other, banishing a historic disconnect and potentially transforming care for a dizzying number of disorders in the process.

Dr. Slack describes this latest grant success as a “critical stepping-stone to advancing toward global leadership” in understanding the complex heart-brain connection and bringing together top talent from across Canada and the world.

“The brain and the heart have been completely separated over the years so there’s limited knowledge as to how they interact. We’re going to bring them together with the goal of really understanding how they’re connected as a functional unit,” Dr. Slack says. “We think this is the key to treating chronic brain-heart linked conditions.”

Ruth Slack

“We’re going to bring the brain and the heart together with the goal of really understanding how they’re connected as a functional unit.”

Dr. Ruth Slack

— Full professor, Faculty of Medicine, and Director of the UOBMRI

Both professors in the uOttawa Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, Dr. Liu is the Chief Scientific Officer and Vice President of Research at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute (UOHI), and Dr. Slack is Director of the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research Institute (uOBMRI).

The impact of brain and heart disorders on patients and health systems couldn’t be more profound. From cognitive impairment to heart failure, they pose one of the world’s biggest healthcare challenges, accounting for 32% of all global deaths and 50% of all disease-related disabilities. In Canada alone, one person dies every five minutes from heart disease, stroke or vascular cognitive impairment.

Dr. Liu says the latest support from two prominent Canadian organizations couldn’t come at a better time.

“It sets up the foundation for more opportunities in bringing together top research leaders and helps us advance the network that we’re building brick by brick,” he says. “It’s really quite exciting.”

Peter Liu

“It sets up the foundation for more opportunities in bringing together top research leaders and helps us advance the network that we’re building brick by brick.”

Dr. Peter Liu

— Full professor, Faculty of Medicine, and Chief Scientific Officer and VP of Research at UOHI

Indeed, when it comes to exploring the heart-brain connection, momentum is building at uOttawa and its affiliated institutes.

In recent years, Dr. Liu and Dr. Slack spearheaded the creation of the groundbreaking Hub of Excellence for Cardio-Neuro-Mind Research (HCNMR), which in 2021 was awarded $5.8M from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). This was subsequently matched by another $5.8M from the Ontario Research Fund.

Hosted at uOttawa, it’s Canada’s first multi-disciplinary, multi-specialty research group investigating the shared mechanisms underlying heart and brain health challenges. It includes leading experts at the UOHI, the uOBMRI, the Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research, the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI), and other prominent research institutions across Canada.

To be sure, there’s a palpable all-hands-on-deck attitude here in the nation’s capital with unveiling the intricacies of the heart-brain connection. “In the city of Ottawa, we basically have every hospital-based institute, the university and multiple faculties all engaged, excited and working on this program,” Dr. Slack says.

Collaborating to improve health is the team’s vision, according to Dr. Liu. And at the end of the day, solving the mysteries of the brain-heart connection is always about boosting patient outcomes.

“Our patients are the key to telling us what's important so we're equal partners with them when working toward solving these problems,” Dr. Liu says. “That’s really why we do what we do.”