News | 13 January 2020

Research into mutual causes of heart failure and vascular dementia

Millions in EU funding for study on the smallest blood vessels in the heart and brain

Researchers at Maastricht UMC+ are receiving almost one and a half million euros in funding to study the possible mutual causes of vascular dementia and heart failure. The theory is that a reduction in the number of small blood vessels lies at the root of both disorders. The researchers hope to improve diagnosis and discover new leads for treatment by working with colleagues at other European knowledge institutions. A total of six million euros will be made available for the project (under the supervision of Leuven University).

iStockiStockMedical disorders seldom occur on their own and are often interrelated. Obesity and high blood pressure, for example, are commonly associated with cardiovascular diseases. The presence of more than one disorder in the same person is called a comorbidity. The heart and brain seem to be particularly sensitive to this. For example, patients who suffer from heart failure are more likely to have cognitive problems than healthy people, and risk factors for heart failure also contribute to memory impairment. It seems, then, that similar mechanisms underpin disorders of the brain and the heart.

Minuscule blood vessels
The research project that has just received funding will focus on the mutual causes of heart failure and vascular dementia. In both cases, damage to the smallest blood vessels appears to be the root cause. High blood pressure and the natural process of ageing impair the quality of this 'microcirculation'. The current study is investigating the hypothesis that the number of vessels also declines. By combining different research techniques, the researchers hope to gain more clarity about the consequences of these changes in the small blood vessels.

Clinical and basic research
The research project has been divided into different components. In the clinical component, the researchers will use advanced MRI techniques to trace the smallest blood vessels in the brain and heart of patients with incipient heart failure and incipient vascular dementia and to monitor changes over time. The clinical component will be the specific focus of the Maastricht UMC+ researchers. The component focusing more on basic research involves studying molecular mechanisms that may be responsible for the disappearance of the smallest blood vessels. The findings could provide leads for new forms of treatment.

Paying better attention
'Very little research is being done into the relationship between pathologies of the heart and the brain,' says Prof. Robert van Oostenbrugge, head of Neurology at Maastricht UMC+, 'even though there are growing indications of a close connection. Often, we still focus too much on one disorder, for example heart failure, when in fact we should be paying better attention to the potential long-term consequences for the brain. We hope that this new study will show that microcirculation plays an important role in this process.'

The research project has been named CRUCIAL and is funded by the EU's Horizon 2020 programme. Researchers participating in the project on behalf of Maastricht UMC+ are Prof. Walter Backes and Dr Jaap Janssen (Radiology), Prof. Robert van Oostenbrugge and Dr Julie Staals (Neurology) and Prof. Jos Prickaerts and Dr Sebastien Foulquier (Neuroscience).