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Stunning image of how signals move through the heart wins photo prize

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) has announced the winner of its annual Reflections of Research science image competition. This asks BHF-funded scientists to highlight their research into heart conditions by sharing pictures that were taken as part of their work.

First prize went to this computer-generated image that maps the thousands of muscle cells that make up the wall of the heart. Each tiny line represents a bundle of cells that sends electrical signals to each other. ­­

The “Paths of the heart” image was submitted by Marina Strocchi at King’s College London, who hopes that by visualising how electrical signals travel through the heart we can better predict how individuals will respond to different treatments for cardiovascular conditions.

Captured by Judy Sayers at the University of Oxford, “Seeing through the heart” won the supporters’ favourite category at the competition. The glows of orange depict the blood vessels around the heart, with the thick branch on the left being the coronary artery, while the largest bright spots show the upper chambers of the heart. Nestled in the middle of the organ is its intertwining electrical system, which causes the heart to beat.

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One of several shortlisted entries, “A close-up view of vascular first aid kits” was submitted by Sammy El-Mansi at Queen Mary University of London and zooms in on a blood vessel. The specks of green, red and yellow are stores of a molecule called von Willebrand factor, which the vessels’ cells release to create blood clots. The splashes of blue denote the genetic information of each cell and the slivers of white are endothelial cells, which form the lining of the blood vessels.

An image from Loïc Rolas, also at Queen Mary University of London, looks at the outside of a mouse’s blood vessel, represented by the deep red structure at the bottom of the image. The green bodies on top of the blood vessel are mast cells – immune cells that control blood flow and inflammation.

Unlike the previous entries, which were created from laboratory studies, this vibrant image was the product of the AI image generator DALL-E.

Michelle Williams at the University of Edinburgh, UK, prompted the generator to create “an image of the heart from a computed tomography scan, digital art”. As striking as the result is, there are a few anatomical errors, such as the structure and pattern of the blood vessels.

Williams, along with her team, is investigating whether healthcare professionals can distinguish between real and AI-generated heart scans.

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