Scientists solve Leonardo da Vinci’s 500-year-old human heart mystery

Researchers figure out the function of mysterious heart structures first described by da Vinci.

heart illustration

The heart and the trabeculae.

Credit: Spencer Phillips
  • Scientists discover the function of the trabeculae, muscle fibers lining human hearts.
  • The structures were first described by Leonard da Vinci over 500 years ago.
  • The trabeculae have an effect on the heart's performance and failure.

    • Scientists found out the purpose of mysterious structures in the human heart, first described by Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago. The mesh of muscle fibers called trabeculae lines the inner surface of the heart and was shown to affect how well the heart functions.

      The mesh, exhibiting distinctive fractal patterns that resemble snowflakes, was initially sketched by Leonardo da Vinci in the 16th century. Early in human development, human hearts form trabeculaes, which create geometric patterns on the inner surface. While their purpose during this stage appears to be in aiding oxygenation of the growing heart, what they do in adults hasn't been previously figured out. Da Vinci thought the structure warms blood going through the heart.

      To really understand what these networks do, an international research team used artificial intelligence to go through data from 25,000 MRI scans of the heart. They also looked at the related data pertaining to heart morphology and genetics.

      The scientists observed that the rough surface of the heart ventricles helps the efficiency of the blood flow during a heartbeat, the way dimples on a golf ball lower air resistance, as elaborates the team's press release. They also discovered that there are six regions in human DNA that determine how exactly the fractal patterns in the muscle fibers form.

      The team working on the project included Ewan Birney from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory's Bioinformatic Institute.

      "Our findings answer very old questions in basic human biology," explained Birney. "As large-scale genetic analyses and artificial intelligence progress, we're rebooting our understanding of physiology to an unprecedented scale."

      Another important insight – the shape of the trabeculae influences the heart's performance. Analysis of data from 50,000 patients established that the different fractal patterns can influence the risk of heart failure. Interestingly, the study showed that people who have more trabeculae branches seem to be at lower risk of heart failure.

      Leonardo DaVinci: behind a Genius

      Declan O'Regan, Clinical Scientist and Consultant Radiologist at the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences, said that while their work is built on quite old observations, it can be crucial to today's people.

      "Leonardo da Vinci sketched these intricate muscles inside the heart 500 years ago, and it's only now that we're beginning to understand how important they are to human health," said O'Regan. "This work offers an exciting new direction for research into heart failure, which affects the lives of nearly 1 million people in the UK."

      Other participating scientists came from the Heidelberg University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and the Politecnico di Milano.

      Check out their study published in the journal Nature.

      This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

      A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

      Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
      Surprising Science
      • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
      • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
      • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

      First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

      Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

      All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

      BepiColombo

      Image source: European Space Agency

      The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

      Into and out of Earth's shadow

      In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

      The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

      In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

      When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

      Magentosphere melody

      The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

      BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

      MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

      Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

      Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

      Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

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      • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
      • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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