Skip to main content
Move the World.
map of the human heart

Lead Image © 7activestudio / Adobe Stock

In 2016, an international group of scientists set a lofty goal for themselves: make the most detailed map of the human body ever created.

The map aims to break the body down to the molecular level, noting every cell, what it does, and how it fits into the larger system. Armed with this free reference tool, scientists would be better prepared to develop new ways to diagnose and treat diseases, the researchers hoped.

The initiative is called the Human Cell Atlas, and it recently unveiled one of its crowning achievements: a 500,000-cell map of the human heart.

Combating Cardiovascular Disease

If the goal is fighting disease, a map of the human heart is a no brainer.

Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death globally, killing nearly 18 million people every year. It's not just one thing that goes wrong, either — some people are born with heart defects, others develop diseases, and many suffer problems caused by simply getting older.

By showing how a healthy heart looks and functions at the cellular level, the newly unveiled map could yield new insights into cardiovascular disease, potentially saving countless lives in the process.

"Ultimately, these fundamental insights may suggest specific targets that can lead to individualised therapies in the future, creating personalized medicines for heart disease and improving the effectiveness of treatments for each patient," Christine Seidman, a researcher from Harvard Medical School, said in a press release.

Making a Map of the Human Heart

To create their map of the human heart, the researchers started with 14 donor hearts that were healthy, but not suitable for transplantation.

They used several imaging technologies, machine learning software, and a technique called single-cell sequencing to study the genetic activity of nearly half a million individual cells in the heart.

"I can summarize my thoughts in one word: monumental."

Douglas Mann

From that, they determined that the heart has 11 types of cells, housed in six areas.

They also learned that the cells in the different chambers of the heart behave differently from one another, and that there are cellular differences between the hearts of men and women — which might yield new insights into how diseases affect the sexes.

A Monumental Map

All of the data is now available on the Heart Cell Atlas website, but it's not a finished product.

The researchers plan to continue to improve their map of the human heart — one goal is to study organs from a more diverse population, as all 14 used for the initial map were from white donors.

Still, their first draft of the Human Heart Atlas is already drawing accolades from the scientific community.

"I can summarize my thoughts in one word: monumental," Douglas Mann, a cardiologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who was not involved in the study, said in a press release. "I think it's a really big accomplishment and will be a tremendous source of reference for the field."

map of the human heart

Heart cell data like this could help researchers combat cardiovascular disease. Credit: Heart Cell Atlas

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

Biology
Scientists Reveal First 3D Heart Model That Shows Heart’s Neurons
3D heart model
Biology
Scientists Reveal First 3D Heart Model That Shows Heart’s Neurons
Researchers built a virtual 3D heart model in unparalleled detail, mapping the neurons for the first time.

Researchers built a virtual 3D heart model in unparalleled detail, mapping the neurons for the first time.

Biology
Scientists Grow Mini Human Hearts From Stem Cells
heart organoids
Biology
Scientists Grow Mini Human Hearts From Stem Cells
Mini human hearts grown from stem cells, also known as "heart organoids," could help doctors address the most common kind of birth defect in humans.

Mini human hearts grown from stem cells, also known as "heart organoids," could help doctors address the most common kind of birth defect in humans.

Medical Innovation
Scientists 3D Print a Heart Pump That Can Beat on Its Own
Heart Pump
Medical Innovation
Scientists 3D Print a Heart Pump That Can Beat on Its Own
Scientists 3D print a heart pump capable of beating on its own — and the organoid could have a big impact on heart research.

Scientists 3D print a heart pump capable of beating on its own — and the organoid could have a big impact on heart research.

Dispatches
We're Mapping 100 Trillion Human Cells (and All of Their Genes)
We're Mapping 100 Trillion Human Cells (and All of Their Genes)
Dispatches
We're Mapping 100 Trillion Human Cells (and All of Their Genes)
The "Human BioMolecular Atlas" will map the active genes in over 200 types of cells and 80 different organ systems.
By Mark Atkinson

The "Human BioMolecular Atlas" will map the active genes in over 200 types of cells and 80 different organ systems.

Medical Innovation
This Adjustable Heart Valve Would Grow as a Child Ages
heart valve
Medical Innovation
This Adjustable Heart Valve Would Grow as a Child Ages
A new, prototype artificial heart valve can adjust to a child’s growing body, potentially sparing them from multiple open-heart surgeries before adulthood.

A new, prototype artificial heart valve can adjust to a child’s growing body, potentially sparing them from multiple open-heart surgeries before adulthood.

Superhuman
How 3D-Printing Is Revolutionizing Heart Surgery
How 3D-Printing Is Revolutionizing Heart Surgery
Watch Now
Superhuman
How 3D-Printing Is Revolutionizing Heart Surgery
When a young boy was facing a complicated and dangerous heart operation, his doctors created an exact model of his heart to plan the surgery. And it probably saved his life.
Watch Now

Joseph had one of the most complicated heart conditions his doctors had ever seen. He faced a long and dangerous operation or a heart transplant. Without either, he wouldn't survive. Opting for surgery, Dr. Petros Anagnostopoulos at the American Family Children's Hospital prepped like few have ever done. He and his team 3D-printed a copy of Joseph's heart that they could explore and understand. It was another step forward...

Superhuman
Father Makes 3D Heart for Daughter
Father Makes 3D Heart for Daughter
Watch Now
Superhuman
Father Makes 3D Heart for Daughter
When a father’s daughter was diagnosed with a heart disease, he set out to design an innovative 3D model of a heart that doctors could explore in virtual reality to save her life and thousands more.
Watch Now

Any father would do whatever it takes to save their child’s life. So when Steve Levine found out that his daughter was diagnosed with a congenital heart disease, he started thinking of any way he could help. The problem was that his daughter was born with reversed left and right ventricles, the weaker of which would run the risk of giving out as she aged. She had a pacemaker installed at age two, and doctors gave her...

Future of Medicine
“Google Maps for the Human Body” Offers a Deep View Inside Our Trillions of Cells
“Google Maps for the Human Body” Offers a Deep View Inside Our Trillions of Cells
Future of Medicine
“Google Maps for the Human Body” Offers a Deep View Inside Our Trillions of Cells
Researchers are creating an interactive, 3D map of the human body to help identify and prevent disease.
By Sarah Wells

Researchers are creating an interactive, 3D map of the human body to help identify and prevent disease.

Healthcare
A Health App Could Someday Detect Heart Disease Via Selfies
health app heart disease
Healthcare
A Health App Could Someday Detect Heart Disease Via Selfies
Researchers in Beijing created a new deep learning algorithm, which claims to detect signs of heart disease in the human face.

Researchers in Beijing created a new deep learning algorithm, which claims to detect signs of heart disease in the human face.