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Understanding the Heart-Brain Connection Leads to Better Patient Care

While the heart-brain connection is not completely understood in medical circles, doctors do know that the connection exists. They develop at the same time in utero, and the heart provides critical blood flow to the brain. When the heart is compromised, it may be unable to adequately meet the blood flow demands of the brain, putting a child at risk for motor and language delays, learning difficulties, attention problems and social challenges.

“Babies can be born with smaller brains or a neurological injury like stroke or cardiac arrest or any temporary stop blood flow to brain can cause developmental delays and challenges later in life,” said Nneka Morris Alexander, PhD, pediatric psychologist for cardiac services, Department of Neuropsychology. “In addition, kids who have surgery within their first few months of life may be at higher risk of having developmental delays.”

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Cardiac Neurodevelopmental Program provides critical mental health support to cardiac patients and families, as these patients are typically hospitalized for long periods of time. Dr. Alexander oversees inpatient screening and treatment of medically related trauma and stress in patients and families. She also conducts outpatient screenings of developmental skills for infants and toddlers with congenital heart defects. Early identification of developmental issues helps ensure families can access the right support and resources for their children.

Just one example of the good work the Cardiac Neurodevelopmental Program does is seen in the ICU. Because research shows that the ICU can be a stressful environment for young patients, the program has established “neuroprotective care” rounds, where a team of professionals regularly discusses the developmental-related needs for the babies in their care. For example, the team may discuss alternative methods of pain control to medication, such as swaddling.

While neuropsychological care is proactive for congenital heart disease (CHD) patients referred at birth and seen throughout their lives until age 21, families or teachers may be the first ones to pick up on developmental concerns. Sometimes families aren’t aware that atypical developmental issues such as having a hard time transitioning or being disorganized at school could be related to their child’s CHD.

Some CHD kids will do fine in the early years, but issues can pop up when they get older,” Dr. Alexander said. “If parents notice anything out of the norm, they should call us and talk with their cardiologist about risk factors and symptoms.”

Resources to learn more about the heart-brain connection and receive support:

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Cardiac Neurodevelopmental Program

Kids at Heart, sponsored by the Sibley Heart Center, offers parents, families and caregivers of kids with congenital heart defects a chance to come together and share their experiences.

Mended Little Hearts provides patients and families of children with CHD many services that directly improve their quality of life.

Camp Braveheart gives every child the chance to experience camp, build friendships and make memories to last a lifetime.

For more information about Sibley Heart Center Cardiology and our pediatric cardiology specialists, click here.

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