A heart with no beat

Artificial hearts are amazing, but flawed. They wear out quickly and, even today, they don't work at all unless the transplantee is hooked up to an external air compressor 24-7. That doesn't make for a great quality of life. In fact, according to a story in Popular Science, written by Dan Baum, the first man to ever use an artificial heart asked his doctors (repeatedly) if they couldn't just let him die.

And yet, many people would still like to avoid dying of heart failure. So how do you solve the problem?

As Baum explains it, the flaws in artificial hearts are all tied back to a key issue: Trying to make them beat like a natural heart. So, what if an artificial heart didn't have to beat in order to do its job?

Meeko the calf stood nuzzling a pile of hay. He didn’t seem to have much appetite, and he looked a little bored. Every now and then, he glanced up, as though wondering why so many people with clipboards were standing around watching him.

Fourteen hours earlier, I’d watched doctors lift Meeko’s heart from his body and place it, still beating, in a plastic dish. He looked no worse for the experience, whisking away a fly with his tail as he nibbled, demonstrably alive—though above his head, a monitor showed a flatlined pulse. I held a stethoscope to his warm, fragrant flank and heard, instead of the deep lub-dub of a heartbeat, what sounded like a dentist’s drill or the underwater whine of an outboard motor. Something was keeping Meeko alive, but it was nothing like a heart.

This is a longer read, but very much worthwhile. It's one of those stories that will leave you feeling like you live in the capital-F Future.

Read the rest of Dan Baum's Popular Science story on a new kind of artificial heart.

Image: Green Heart (And the Green Grass Grows All Around, All Around), a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from carbonnyc's photostream


  1. So is he designing this to replace the heart or to simply replace it’s function?  I know the article talks about how the LVAD basically goes inline with the heart and augments its function, but with the newer devices is the heart going to be removed?

    I also wonder what would happen if someone started chest compressions on a person having one of these.  (Assuming they still had their original heart.)  I’d think most EMT’s and medical professionals would realize from the wire and battery pack that you have something extra in there, but the average person may not.

    1. I don’t know if you know what chest compressions are for…The idea is to pump the chest in hopes of keeping the blood moving. This is easily achieved in a natural heart because of its very design; an artificial heart, whether it beats or not, is likely to compromise the effectiveness of chest compressions, sure, but they should work at least a little (you are compressing the whole chest cavity, after all), and CPR is only minimally effective at best, with a low likelihood of success. 

  2. After reading that article I’m suddenly more aware than ever of the beating in my chest.

  3. I thought we already basically had this?

    According to the Wikipedia article on Dick Cheney:

    In early July 2010, Cheney was outfitted with a left-ventricular assist device (LVAD) at Inova Fairfax Heart and Vascular Institute to compensate for worsening congestive heart failure. The device pumps blood continuously through his body…. This pump is centrifugal and as a result he is alive without a pulse.

    (I <3 whoever added "he is alve without a pulse" and managed to keep that line in the article through the edit-protection of the page.)

    1. What Cheney has is not technically an artificial heart; it’s an assistant to an existing, working heart.  It’s mentioned on page 4 of the article:

      Thoratec won FDA approval of the HeartMate II in 2008, and surgeons have now installed continuous-flow LVADs alongside the hearts of some 11,000 people worldwide (among them former vice president Dick Cheney).

      1. What Cheney has is not technically an artificial heart; it’s an assistant to an existing, working heart.

        Sheesh. Is there any critical job that guy won’t outsource?

  4. What about the valves in the rest of the body? Do they just atrophy from lack of use? Does that matter? 

  5. I read about the first guy to get an experimental “beatless” artificial heart a couple of months ago. Sadly he didn’t survive that long.

    At least that’s what they said, but if I had one of those things I’d be terrified that the first medic to check my pulse when I was sleeping would call it then and there and I’d wake up in the morgue.

      1. I suspect I wouldn’t mind waking up in the morgue.  Beats the hell out of waking up inside the crematorium.

  6. I remember maybe 20 years ago one of the concerns about non-pulsed systems was that the body might respond in unknown (and undesirable) ways to a continuous flow.  Since I  tl;dr’d here, can anyone comment on the state of research into overall health in the absence of diastole and systole?

  7. Sadly my takeaway from reading this article is that they have cute heart shaped bowls to hold a heart before/during/after surgery.

  8. When I went to Body Worlds there was a whole section about artificial hearts (including a body that died with one still inside it.)  If I recall correctly, there’s something about the nature of standard pumps that makes them unsuitable for pumping blood.

    1. Oh… that’s actually mentioned in the article:

      The most foreseeable problem with using an Archimedes’ screw to move blood, in his view, was damaging the blood itself. The most a person can tolerate is one shredded cell in 200,000. The continuous-flow turbine, spinning like a blender on high speed, seemed likely to tear the red cells apart.

      But if what this article says is true, it turned out not to be a problem after all.

  9. One problem with replacement hearts, like replacement valves, is that you suddenly become aware of the change in the sounds your body is making (or not making). It can cause nightmares, anxieties and other problems. My mother has two artificial heart valves and so she goes “tic-tic-tic-tic” not “lub-dub”. It took her two years to be able to sleep through the night without being startled out of sleep by the idea that she had a clock stuck in her chest. I can only imagine what it would be like psychologically to have no heartbeat at all.

    1.  Can’t say I have that strong a psychological attachment to my heartbeat beyond the ability to ignore it when it’s not going hard.

      I don’t think I’d miss it, but having it replaced with a whir or whine or something would almost certainly suck somewhat, I bet… not sure you’d ever be able to learn to ignore it.

      1. The thing is, you have had your heartbeat your whole life. You have no idea how much you might miss it if it disappeared one day and was replaced by another sound all together. There’s the rub.

Comments are closed.