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What muscle Cannot regenerate?

Muscles are made up of fibers that can be broken down and regenerated over time. This allows our muscles to grow stronger with exercise and recover from injury. However, not all muscles have the same regenerative capabilities. There is one particular muscle in the human body that cannot significantly regenerate once damaged – the heart.

The heart is a muscle that contracts rhythmically to pump blood throughout the body. It works tirelessly, beating over 2.5 billion times in an average lifetime. This high level of use necessitates regenerative capacity to maintain cardiac function over decades. However, mammalian hearts, including human hearts, have very limited regenerative ability compared to other muscles.

Why cardiac muscle has poor regenerative capacity

There are a few key reasons why heart muscle cells, also known as cardiomyocytes, cannot significantly regenerate:

Limited number of cardiomyocytes

The heart contains a finite number of cardiomyocytes that must last a lifetime. Researchers estimate that the human heart contains 2-6 billion cardiomyocytes at birth. This initial complement of heart cells does not substantially increase later in life.

Adult cardiomyocytes have almost no ability to multiply and regenerate new muscle cells. This is in contrast to skeletal muscle, which has muscle stem cells (satellite cells) that can readily proliferate and fuse to form new muscle fibers in response to injury.

Low turnover rate

The cardiomyocytes present at birth must contract 3 billion times per year for decades without being replaced. Overall, less than 1% of cardiomyocytes are renewed annually. The heart does contain a small population of progenitor cells that can replace dead cardiomyocytes. However, the rate of cardiomyocyte turnover is remarkably low compared to other tissues.

Limited blood supply

The heart needs a rich blood supply to provide oxygen and nutrients that fuel constant contractions. However, most cardiomyocytes are not in direct contact with capillaries. This makes it harder to deliver renewal factors to aging cardiomyocytes across the heart wall. Limited vascularization contributes to the low regenerative capacity.

Consequences of low cardiomyocyte renewal

The inability to adequately regenerate cardiomyocytes has several detrimental effects, especially as we age:

Cardiomyocyte hypertrophy

Since new cardiomyocytes cannot be generated, the existing heart cells adapt by getting bigger. This cellular hypertrophy enables more force generation to meet increasing demands. However, it also stresses the enlarged cardiomyocytes, predisposing them to pathology.


With age, fibroblasts proliferate and deposit excessive collagen within the heart muscle. This fibrotic scarring impedes cardiac contraction and electrical signaling. Since fibrotic regions cannot contract, more strain is placed on the remaining healthy myocardium.

Cellular senescence

Over decades of use, cardiomyocytes accumulate molecular damage. This causes them to enter an irreversible state of senescence where they remain alive but lose function. Senescent cardiomyocytes further reduce the functional capacity of the aging heart.

Loss of cardiomyocytes

While cardiomyocyte regeneration is minimal, cardiomyocyte death steadily occurs. Apoptosis, necrosis, and autophagic deaths culmulatively deplete cardiomyocytes over a lifetime. This loss of heart muscle cells leads to decreased contractile strength.


Fibrosis and loss of cardiomyocytes disrupts the heart’s electrical syncytium, predisposing aging individuals to arrhythmias. Abnormal heart rhythms can be very dangerous.

Heart failure

All of the above factors contribute to heart failure, which affects over 6 million Americans. Heart failure sets in when the weakened heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s demands. Even mild heart failure significantly impacts quality of life.

Approaches to improve cardiomyocyte regeneration

Promoting cardiomyocyte regeneration could help maintain heart function and prevent the progression of cardiovascular diseases. Current regenerative medicine approaches focus on:

Stimulating progenitor cells

Attempts are being made to grow cardiomyocytes from endogenous progenitor cells. This includes activating resident cardiac stem cells and reprogramming other cell types into cardiomyocyte-like cells. However, the limited number and regenerative capacity of progenitor cells in the heart remains a challenge.

Transplanting stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes

Pluripotent stem cells can be differentiated into cardiomyocyte-like cells in vitro and then transplanted into damaged hearts. While initial results are promising, generating enough cells and ensuring proper integration and maturation remains difficult. Risk of tumor formation from transplanted cells also must be avoided.

Delivering regenerative factors

Growth factors, microRNAs, and other regenerative molecules could potentially be delivered to stimulate limited cardiomyocyte renewal. However, it is challenging to achieve sufficient delivery to cardiomyocytes throughout the heart wall.

Inducing cell cycle re-entry

Methods to induce existing cardiomyocytes to re-enter the cell cycle and proliferate are actively being explored. These include modulating cell cycle inhibitors, hippo signaling, and other regulators of cardiomyocyte proliferation. More research is needed to develop safe and effective treatments.

Exercise and cardioprotective therapies

While not regenerative, exercise and drugs such as ACE-inhibitors and beta-blockers may help preserve existing cardiomyocytes and slow pathological deterioration of the aging heart.

Why skeletal muscle can readily regenerate

In contrast to cardiac muscle, skeletal muscle has a robust capacity to regenerate in response to injury. Key differences that facilitate regeneration include:

Satellite cells

Skeletal muscle contains muscle stem cells called satellite cells nestled between muscle fibers. Satellite cells are normally quiescent but activate to proliferate and differentiate into myoblasts that fuse to form new muscle fibers when needed.

Dynamic vascularization

Skeletal muscle has greater vascular plasticity. Capillaries can sprout into damaged areas along with regenerating fibers to deliver nutrients and growth factors. This mitigates ischemia and facilitates regeneration.

Less strain

Unlike the constantly contracting heart, most skeletal muscles are used intermittently. Periods of rest allow robust repair between bouts of muscle use. Lower baseline strain likely enables more efficient skeletal muscle regeneration.

Younger age

Skeletal muscle regenerates well during youth and early adulthood. Regenerative capacity declines with advanced age due to cellular senescence, stem cell depletion, and other aging-related factors. Nonetheless, skeletal muscle maintains greater lifelong renewal potential than heart muscle.

Different embryological origins

Heart muscle derives from different embryonic precursor cells than skeletal muscle, which may imprint distinct regenerative capacities. However, this idea remains speculative.


In summary, the heart muscle has an intrinsically limited capacity to regenerate due to the unique characteristics of cardiomyocytes, inadequate vascularization, constant strain, and other factors. This makes the heart prone to aging-related decline and disease. Enhancing cardiomyocyte regeneration remains a major challenge in medicine. In contrast, skeletal muscle robustly regenerates thanks to satellite cells, vascularization dynamics, intermittent use, and origins from embryonic precursors with greater renewal potential. Understanding the stark differences in regeneration between heart and skeletal muscle will guide future therapeutic approaches to preserve cardiac function and treat heart failure.