PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — To treat the heart, researchers at Allegheny General Hospital are targeting the brain.

“We want to show an improvement of symptoms and improvement of people’s functional capabilities,” says Dr. George Sokos, a cardiologist at Allegheny General Hospital. “Obviously, we want people to live longer as well.”

Something this woman with congestive heart failure is grateful for because without their research trial, she was heading toward a heart transplant.

“I was actually relieved that there was an alternative and jumped at the chance basically to participate,” says Brenda Warner of Tyrone. “I couldn’t breathe. Walking was a major chore. Going up steps was, I would literally have to stop and take a break.”

Congestive heart failure, or CHF, is like having a broken pump. The body compensates by bombarding the heart with signals to do more. The device slows things down, so the pump can work more efficiently.

The heart gets signals from a nerve that comes off the brain stem. It’s called the vagus nerve and it does a lot of things. This includes influencing your heart rate.

In the study, implanted electrodes will go up the neck to the nerve, and down to the heart. The battery pack sits in the upper chest.

“In the grand scheme of surgeries, it’s a small surgery,” says Dr. Sokos. “Any time you put a foreign device in the body, there’s always a small chance of infection. Any time you have surgery, bleeding’s a risk.”

Up to 650 adults at 30 medical centers across the U.S. will be enrolled. They must have symptoms of shortness of breath and tiredness because of CHF and be on a combination of medicine.

Participants will be randomly assigned to get the device or just stick with medical treatment. Then they are followed for five years.

As the first patient in Pittsburgh to get the device as part of the trial, Brenda is hopeful.

“I’m hoping that my heart responds. I’m hoping that my heart will start pumping better,” she says.

The ideal candidates are otherwise healthy with no other medical problems. Vagal nerve stimulators have been used to treat epilepsy and have been tried for depression.

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