My second instalment from Physiology 2010.
At any large scientific meeting, with lots of things on at once, there are lectures that you feel you really have to go to, commonly because they are in your research area.
There are also lectures you look at and think you might go to.
For me, especially as I have got older and done more teaching, these latter ones are often lectures covering topics that I:
(i) have taught; or
(ii) teach; or finally
(iii) remember never understanding properly when they were taught to me.
Today (Wednesday) I was pondering whether to go to Professor Murray Esler’s Paton Lecture  on “The sympathetic nervous system through the ages”. The sympathetic nervous system falls into categories (ii) and (iii) above.
Anyway, I am glad I did decide to go along, because I learned a good deal that was new to me, including a load of things that I shall enjoy passing on to the students in years to come. For instance, did you know that Sir Christopher Wren was briefly a neuroanatomist ? I certainly didn’t. Of course, Wren soon found something else to do with his time.
Esler’s main theme was the role of the sympathetic nervous system in controlling the cardiovascular system. The most fascinating bit for me was when he dealt with “psychogenic” heart problems. There are many stories of people getting so stressed that they keel over with a heart attack, but Esler told us that hard evidence on such “psychogenic cardiac events” has been lacking until recently.
However, there is now good evidence, he told us, that fear and stress really can increase your risk of a serious acute heart problem.
One example – the one I started with an allusion to – was watching a crucial football match.
The study Esler cited in particular was this one from the New England Journal of Medicine. It looked at the rate of cardiac events – heart attacks, severe angina or dangerous cardiac arrhythmias – in German men attending hospital ERs/ A&E departments in the greater Munich area during the 2006 World Cup. Germany, the host nation, got as far as the semi-finals of the tournament where they were eliminated by Italy, the eventual winners, 2-0 after extra time.
[EDIT: The link to the Figure has gone dead. If you have access to the paper here, click Figure 1 to enlarge it]
Here is the key figure in the paper, which Esler showed us. The number of cardiac events is plotted against the date, with the years 2003 and 2005 shown as controls. Peaks 5 and 6 in the plot for 2006 are the days of Germany’s quarter-final with Argentina, which they won after extra time and a penalty shoot-out, and the semi-final with Italy. In the latter game Italy did not score until the 29th minute of extra time, after almost two hours of football. The authors also stated in the paper that most of the cardiac events occurred within two hours of the kick-off of the games.
So like I said – watching football can damage your health.
And should your team still be in the World Cup – especially if you are a middle aged male – try not to get too worked up on game days.
PS In case you were wondering what happened to peak 7, which is down in the noise, it represents the day of the 3rd place play-off between the losing semi-finalists, Germany and Portugal. Most armchair football fans would tell you that no-one, apart from the players, really cares who wins the 3rd place play-off.
2. Wren was for a time an Oxford University colleague of the noted physician and pioneering neuroanatomist Thomas Willis.