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The Heart's Reversible Response to Electricity

NSF Award:

Nanomechanics of Ferroelectric Fractures: Phase-Field Simulations and Piezoresponse Force Microscopy Characterizations  (University of Washington)

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A team of researchers at the University of Washington and Boston University has found that the wall of the aorta, the largest blood vessel carrying blood from the heart, exhibits ferroelectricity. This phenomenon occurs in response to an electric field and causes molecules to switch from having a positive charge to a negative one. The discovery is the first example of the electric property showing up in complex living tissue.

Because the study showed clear evidence of ferroelectricity in a sample of a pig aorta, the researchers believe the findings may also apply to human tissue.The team is now investigating the interactions between ferroelectricity and charged glucose (sugar) molecules in an effort to better understand glucose's effect on the mechanical properties of the aortic walls. They recently discovered that a protein called elastin is responsible for ferroelectric switching and that when elastin is exposed to sugar it slows or stops the switching.

Results from this research could help illuminate the connection between hardening of the arteries--atherosclerosis--and diabetes, a risk factor for the disease. Another possible application of this research is in the treatment of a condition in which cholesterol deposits build up causing thickening, hardening and eventual closure of arteries.

Ferroelectricity is common in synthetic materials and is used for displays, memory storage and sensors. Pinpointing the source of ferroelectricity may answer questions about its role in the body.


  • blue spots show where glucose stopped ferroelectric activity in the aorta
The blue spots show where glucose stopped ferroelectric switching in a pig aorta.
University of Washington

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