Congenital Heart Defects

A congenital heart defect (CHD), also known as a congenital heart anomaly or congenital heart disease, is a problem in the structure of the heart that is present at birth. Signs and symptoms depend on the specific type of problem. Symptoms can vary from none to life-threatening. When present they may include rapid breathing, bluish skin, poor weight gain, and feeling tired. It does not cause chest pain.Most congenital heart problems do not occur with other diseases.Complications that can result from heart defects include heart failure.

The cause of a congenital heart defect is often unknown. Certain cases may be due to infections during pregnancy such as rubella, use of certain medications or drugs such as alcohol or tobacco, parents being closely related, or poor nutritional status or obesity in the mother. Having a parent with a congenital heart defect is also a risk factor. A number of genetic conditions are associated with heart defects including Down syndrome, Turner syndrome, and Marfan syndrome. Congenital heart defects are divided into two main groups: cyanotic heart defects and non-cyanotic heart defects, depending on whether the child has the potential to turn bluish in color. The problems may involve the interior walls of the heart, the heart valves, or the large blood vessels that lead to and from the heart.

Congenital heart defects are partly preventable through rubella vaccination, the adding of iodine to salt, and the adding of folic acid to certain food products. Some defects do not need treatment. Others may be effectively treated with catheter based procedures or heart surgery. Occasionally a number of operations may be needed, or a heart transplant may be required. With appropriate treatment, outcomes are generally good, even with complex problems.

Heart defects are the most common birth defect. In 2015 they were present in 48.9 million people globally. They affect between 4 and 75 per 1,000 live births depending upon how they are diagnosed. About 6 to 19 per 1,000 cause a moderate to severe degree of problems. Congenital heart defects are the leading cause of birth defect-related deaths. In 2015 they resulted in 303,300 deaths down from 366,000 deaths in 1990.

Most of the time CHD is serious and requires surgery and/or medications. Medications include diuretics, which aid the body in eliminating water, salts, and digoxin for strengthening the contraction of the heart. This slows the heartbeat and removes some fluid from tissues. Some defects require surgical procedures to restore circulation back to normal and in some cases, multiple surgeries are needed.

Interventional cardiology now offers patients minimally invasive alternatives to surgery for some patients. The Melody Transcatheter Pulmonary Valve (TPV), approved in Europe in 2006 and in the U.S. in 2010 under a Humanitarian Device Exemption (HDE), is designed to treat congenital heart disease patients with a dysfunctional conduit in their right ventricular outflow tract (RVOT). The RVOT is the connection between the heart and lungs; once blood reaches the lungs, it is enriched with oxygen before being pumped to the rest of the body. Transcatheter pulmonary valve technology provides a less-invasive means to extend the life of a failed RVOT conduit and is designed to allow physicians to deliver a replacement pulmonary valve via a catheter through the patient’s blood vessels.

Most patients require lifelong specialized cardiac care, first with a pediatric cardiologist and later with an adult congenital cardiologist. There are more than 1.8 million adults living with congenital heart defects.

The cause of congenital heart disease may be genetic, environmental, or a combination of both.

Most of the known causes of congenital heart disease are sporadic genetic changes, either focal mutations or deletion or addition of segments of DNA. Large chromosomal abnormalities such as trisomies 21, 13, and 18 cause about 5–8% of cases of CHD, with trisomy 21 being the most common genetic cause. Small chromosomal abnormalities also frequently lead to congenital heart disease, and examples include microdeletion of the long arm of chromosome 22 (22q11, DiGeorge syndrome), the long arm of chromosome 1 (1q21), the short arm of chromosome 8 (8p23) and many other, less recurrent regions of the genome, as shown by high resolution genome-wide screening (Array comparative genomic hybridization).

The genes regulating the complex developmental sequence have only been partly elucidated. Some genes are associated with specific defects. A number of genes have been associated with cardiac manifestations. Mutations of a heart muscle protein, α-myosin heavy chain (MYH6) are associated with atrial septal defects. Several proteins that interact with MYH6 are also associated with cardiac defects. The transcription factor GATA4 forms a complex with the TBX5 which interacts with MYH6. Another factor, the homeobox (developmental) gene, NKX2-5 also interacts with MYH6. Mutations of all these proteins are associated with both atrial and ventricular septal defects; In addition, NKX2-5 is associated with defects in the electrical conduction of the heart and TBX5 is related to the Holt-Oram syndrome which includes electrical conduction defects and abnormalities of the upper limb. Another T-box gene, TBX1, is involved in velo-cardio-facial syndrome DiGeorge syndrome, the most common deletion which has extensive symptoms including defects of the cardiac outflow tract including tetralogy of Fallot.

There is a complex sequence of events that result in a well formed heart at birth and disruption of any portion may result in a defect. The orderly timing of cell growth, cell migration, and programmed cell death (“apoptosis”) has been studied extensively and the genes that control the process are being elucidated. Around day 15 of development, the cells that will become the heart exist in two horseshoe shaped bands of the middle tissue layer (mesoderm), and some cells migrate from a portion of the outer layer (ectoderm), the neural crest, which is the source of a variety of cells found throughout the body. On day 19 of development, a pair of vascular elements, the “endocardial tubes”, form. The tubes fuse when cells between then undergo programmed death and cells from the first heart field migrate to the tube, and form a ring of heart cells (myocytes) around it by day 21. On day 22, the heart begins to beat and by day 24, blood is circulating.

At day 22, the circulatory system is bilaterally symmetrical with paired vessels on each side and the heart consisting of a simple tube located in the midline of the body layout. The portions that will become the atria and will be located closest to the head are the most distant from the head. From days 23 through 28, the heart tube folds and twists, with the future ventricles moving left of center (the ultimate location of the heart) and the atria moving towards the head.

On day 28, areas of tissue in the heart tube begin to expand inwards; after about two weeks, these expansions, the membranous “septum primum” and the muscular “endocardial cushions”, fuse to form the four chambers of the heart. A failure to fuse properly will result in a defect that may allow blood to leak between chambers. After this happens, cells which have migrated from the neural crest begin to divide the bulbus cordis, the main outflow tract is divided in two by the growth a spiraling septum, becoming the great vessels—the ascending segment of the aorta and the pulmonary trunk. If the separation is incomplete, the result is a “persistent truncus arteriosis”. The vessels may be reversed (“transposition of the great vessels”). The two halves of the split tract must migrate into the correct positions over the appropriate ventricles. A failure may result in some blood flowing into the wrong vessel (e.g.overriding aorta). The four-chambered heart and the great vessels have features required for fetal growth. The lungs are unexpanded and cannot accommodate the full circulatory volume. Two structures exist to shunt blood flow away from the lungs. Cells in part of the septum primum die creating a hole while muscle cells, the “septum secundum”, grow along the right atrial side the septum primum, except for one region, leaving a gap through which blood can pass from the right artium to the left atrium, the foramen ovale. A small vessel, the ductus arteriosus allows blood from the pulmonary artery to pass to the aorta.

Changes at birth
The ductus arteriosus stays open because of circulating factors including prostaglandins. The foramen ovale stays open because of the flow of blood from the right atrium to the left atrium. As the lungs expand, blood flows easily through the lungs and the membranous portion of the foramen ovale (the septum primum) flops over the muscular portion (the septum secundum). If the closure is incomplete, the result is a patent foramen ovale. The two flaps may fuse, but many adults have a foramen ovale that stays closed only because of the pressure difference between the atria.

Rokitansky (1875) explained congenital heart defects as breaks in heart development at various ontogenesis stages. Spitzer (1923) treats them as returns to one of the phylogenesis stages. Krimsky (1963), synthesizing two previous points of view, considered congenital heart diseases as a stop of development at the certain stage of ontogenesis, corresponding to this or that stage of the phylogenesis. Hence these theories can explain feminine and neutral types of defects only.

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