Virtual Hearts and GPU Minds

Researchers at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney, Australia, are building a virtual heart to study the fatal effects that electrical disturbances can have on patients. This virtual heart, a real-time computer simulator, will allow medical researchers to study how structural changes to the body's most vital organ can interfere with its beating.

Eventually, the team hopes to develop personalized virtual hearts, allowing doctors to use a computer model of an individual's own heart to test treatments – before conducting the procedure on their patients in the real world. The leader of the project, cardiovascular researcher Adam Hill, said one of the main goals of the simulator is to provide a way for doctors to predict which patients may experience an electrical disturbance to their heart, or arrhythmia.

"If we can pick out patterns from simulations and try and understand why and when they occur, that could lead to much better prediction of who it is going to happen to," Dr Hill said.

For a simulator to be useful it must work as close to real-time as possible, so researchers had to come up with an effective way to compute billions of equations every few microseconds. While computer models of the heart have been built in the past, most have proven to be slow and ineffective, and not able to compute information fast enough. To overcome this problem, researchers turned to the technology used in graphics processing units – the same technology used to process the cutting edge 3-D graphics found in video games. The ability to link these processors together was also a boon to researchers.

Researchers also used a magnetic resonance image (MRI) of the heart to map its basic structure and geography onto a computer.

"From MRI you get details of scar regions, so we can map those onto our simulations and see how electrical patterns and structural alterations interact to cause an arrhythmia," he said.

Eventually, the team hopes to create personal virtual hearts based on a patient's own MRI scan to better diagnose and treat their conditions. Jamie Vandenberg, the deputy director of the institute, pointed out that being able to predict who may experience an arrhythmia, which causes about 15 percent of all deaths annually, would be a significant advance in medicine.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

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