Scientists Discover a New Type of Heart Cell

new heart cell
This image shows neurons (blue) and astrocyte-like cardiac nexus glia (green) encompassing a zebrafish heart (red). (Image was generated by Nina L. Kikel-Coury in the Smith Lab. Source: University of Notre Dame

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame have discovered a new type of heart cell, termed ‘nexus glia’.

The greatest of scientific discoveries are often made unexpectedly. This particular fact was further emphasized during a recent discovery by researchers at the University of Notre Dame. While working with zebrafish, the team stumbled upon a new type of heart cell resembling astrocytes. Intrigued by the findings, first author Nina Kikel-Coury then decided to conduct a cross-species analysis. Much to her surprise, the analysis revealed that these cells existed in both humans and mice.

However, co-author Cody Smith was not convinced. How could these glial cells exist outside of the brain and the spinal cord? What is their purpose? But Nina persisted in her search for an answer and eventually managed to convince her team of the cell’s glial identity.

For me the definition of great science is something that you discover that opens up even more questions, and this, I think, is the definition of that.

Cody Smith, study author

The team published their findings in the journal PLOS BIOLOGY.

The ‘Nexus Glia’

Glial cells form the white matter of the brain and help support neurons. Although glial cells are also present in other organs like the lungs, pancreas, spleen, and intestines, their role there remains unclear.

Astrocytes are star-shaped glial cells that help regulate neuronal activity in the brain and spine. Previous studies have also linked it to mood disorders. However, researchers don’t yet know why astrocytes, which are so important for neuron function, are not present in the peripheral nervous system. Therefore, Cody’s team set out to search for glial cells in the heart.

The study found the new heart cells to be located at the outflow tract of the heart. This is a common place for the development of congenital heart defects. When the team removed these cells, the heart rate increased. Moreover, the removal of a key glial gene caused an irregular heartbeat. Thus, proving the critical role of the nexus glia in regulating the heart.

We don’t completely know the function of these cells, but the concept that if you get rid of them, heart rates increase, could link it to certain disease cases. I think these glial cells could play a pretty important role in regulating the heart.

Cody Smith, study author


Kikel-Coury NL, Brandt JP, Correia IA, O’Dea MR, DeSantis DF, Sterling F, et al. (2021) Identification of astroglia-like cardiac nexus glia that are critical regulators of cardiac development and function. PLoS Biol 19(11): e3001444.


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