The power of voodoo

Modern Healthcare - - Outliers -

Can the mind kill the heart?

This is not strictly a ro­man­tic ques­tion—es­pe­cially not when it comes up at the an­nual meet­ing of an or­ga­ni­za­tion with a name like the Heart Fail­ure So­ci­ety of Amer­ica.

How­ever, re­search pre­sented at the group’s an­nual meet­ing in Bos­ton last week showed that, in­deed, ex­tremely fright­en­ing events can cause peo­ple’s bod­ies to send a flood of neu­ro­trans­mit­ters into the heart, trig­ger­ing sud­den death. Har­vard phys­i­ol­o­gist Dr. Wal­ter B. Can­non coined the term “fight or flight” in 1915, but other re­search led him in 1942 to pos­tu­late a con­di­tion known as “voodoo death,” in which ex­tremely scary events can scare peo­ple to death.

Last week, Har­vard neu­rol­ogy pro­fes­sor Dr. Martin Sa­muels pre­sented new re­search at the 15th an­nual Heart Fail­ure meet­ing in Bos­ton show­ing that in rare cases the brain is ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing a toxic flood of nor­ep­i­neph­rine that trig­gers takot­subo car­diomy­opa­thy, or sud­den death, when it reaches the heart.

Although most peo­ple sur­vive such re­ac­tions, some don’t. “I found this level of re­ac­tion in in­di­vid­u­als at­tacked by a bear or ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an earthquake,” Sa­muels was quoted as say­ing in pro­mo­tions for the Bos­ton con­fer­ence. “They are killed on the spot be­cause in a frac­tion of a sec­ond this over­dose of neu­ro­chem­i­cals into the heart can be life-threat­en­ing.”

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Voodoo death? That’s scary!

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