The heart’s inner workings are mysterious, perhaps even more so with a new finding. Engineers at the University of Washington have discovered an electrical property in arteries not seen before in mammalian tissues.
The researchers found that the wall of the aorta, the largest blood vessel carrying blood from the heart, exhibits ferroelectricity, a response to an electric field known to exist in inorganic and synthetic materials. The findings are being published in an upcoming issue of the journal Physical Review Letters.
“The result is exciting for scientific reasons,” said lead author Jiangyu Li , a UW associate professor of mechanical engineering. “But it could also have biomedical implications.”
A ferroelectric material is an electrically polar molecule with one side positively charged and the other negatively charged, whose polarity can be reversed by applying an electrical field.
Ferroelectricity is common in synthetic materials and used for displays, memory storage, and sensors. ( Related research by Li and colleagues seeks to exploit ferroelectric materials for tiny low-power, high-capacity computer memory chips.)
In the new study, Li collaborated with co-author Katherine Zhang at Boston University to explore the phenomenon in biological tissues. The only previous evidence of ferroelectricity in living tissue was reported last year in seashells. Others had looked in mammal tissue, mainly in bones, but found no signs of the property.
The new study shows clear evidence of ferroelectricity in a sample of a pig aorta. Researchers believe the findings would also apply to human tissue.
In subsequent work, yet to be published, they divided the sample into fibrous collagen and springy elastin and studied each one on its own. Pinpointing the source of the ferroelectricity may answer questions about how or whether it plays a role in the body.
“The elastin network is what gives the artery the mechanical property of elasticity, which of course is a very important function,” Li said.