Manchester United is working with the University of Bristol on a project using imaging technology to understand how young people’s hearts work during exercise.

The project is being led by the university’s Bristol Heart Institute, along with Bristol’s Clinical Research and Imaging Centre, and the University of Exeter‘s Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre.

The aim of the project is to identify the healthy limits and the wider benefits of exercise for young elite athletes, healthy children and children with congenital heart defects.

The fitness levels of 300 children will be investigated while exercising – 100 born with heart conditions, 100 healthy children, and 100 elite junior athletes from the Manchester United youth academy.

Toshiba’s Artida cardiac ultrasound scanner will be used to provide clinical images of the children’s hearts while they exercise, with the subsequent use of a MRI scanner to provide more information about their cardiovascular health and fitness.

The study will monitor heart function at rest and during maximum exercise, while also assessing exercise capacity and performance as well as lung function in a single setting.

“The overall aim of the project is to more precisely identify the safe levels of exercise for children with congenital heart disease, as well as to clearly define the positive benefits that regular exercise delivers to normal healthy children over time,” the researchers say.  

 Dr Guido Pieles, the project lead and a clinical lecturer in paediatric cardiology at the University of Bristol, said the “unique” study will allow researchers to improve scanning protocols for more precise and earlier diagnoses of heart function abnormalities.

It will also lead to better monitoring of treatment progress for young patients with congenital heart disease and provide insights into how to detect heart abnormalities in young athletes.

Dr Dave Perry, Manchester United’s academy doctor, said the screening process will help to reassure players’ parents about their ability to withstand the demands of training at an elite level.

“It is hoped that the information from the fitness assessment will help to develop and fine tune the club’s sports science department training programmes,” Perry said.

The first stage of the research collaboration, early this year, will test 40 children with congenital heart disease, 40 normal healthy children and 20 elite athletes. The tests of all participants and findings will be completed by 2016.

 The research project is supported by the National Institute for Health Research and has been partly funded by two local Bristol charities – the David Telling Trust and Above and Beyond.