Cardiac arrhythmias result from abnormalities of electrical impulse generation, conduction, or both. Bradyarrhythmias typically arise from disturbances in impulse formation at the level of the sinoatrial node or from disturbances in impulse propagation at any level, including exit block from the sinus node, conduction block in the AVN, and impaired conduction in the His-Purkinje system. Tachyarrhythmias can be classified according to mechanism, including enhanced automaticity (spontaneous depolarization of atrial, junctional, or ventricular pacemakers), triggered arrhythmias (initiated by afterdepolarizations occurring during or immediately after cardiac repolarization, during phase 3 or 4 of the action potential), or reentry (circus propagation of a depolarizing wavefront). A variety of mapping and pacing maneuvers typically performed during invasive electrophysiologic testing can often determine the underlying mechanism of a tachyarrhythmia (Table 14-1).
TABLE 14-1ARRHYTHMIA MECHANISMS ||Download (.pdf) TABLE 14-1 ARRHYTHMIA MECHANISMS
|ELECTROPHYSIOLOGIC PROPERTY ||MOLECULAR COMPONENTS ||MECHANISM ||PROTOTYPIC ARRHYTHMIAS |
|Impulse Initiation |
|Automaticity ||If, ICa-L, ICa-T, IK, IK1 ||Suppression/acceleration of phase 4 ||Sinus bradycardia, sinus tachycardia |
|Triggered automaticity ||Calcium overload, ITI ||DADs ||Digitalis toxicity, reperfusion VT |
|ICa-L, IK, INa ||EADs ||Torsades des pointes, congenital and acquired |
|Excitation ||INa ||Suppression of phase 0 ||Ischemic VF |
|IK-ATP ||AP shortening, inexcitability || |
|ICa-L ||Suppression ||AV block |
|Repolarization ||INa, ICa-L, IK, IK1, Ca2+ homeostasis ||AP prolongation, EADs, DADs ||Polymorphic VT (HF, LVH) |
|ICa-L, K channels, Ca2+ homeostasis ||AP shortening ||Atrial fibrillation |
|Cellular Coupling ||Connexins (Cx43), INa, IK-ATP ||Decreased coupling ||Ischemic VT/VF |
|Tissue Structure ||Extracellular matrix, collagen ||Excitable gap and functional reentry ||Monomorphic VT, atrial fibrillation |
Alterations in impulse initiation: automaticity
Spontaneous (phase 4) diastolic depolarization underlies the property of automaticity characteristic of pacemaking cells in the sinoatrial (SA) and atrioventricular (AV) nodes, His-Purkinje system, coronary sinus, and pulmonary veins. Phase 4 depolarization results from the concerted action of a number of ionic currents, including K+ currents, Ca2+ currents, electrogenic Na, K-ATPase, the Na-Ca exchanger, and the so-called funny, or pacemaker, current (If); however, the relative importance of these currents remains controversial.
The rate of phase 4 depolarization and, therefore, the firing rates of pacemaker cells are dynamically regulated. Prominent among the factors that modulate phase 4 is autonomic nervous system tone. The negative chronotropic effect of activation of the parasympathetic nervous system is a result of the release of acetylcholine that binds to muscarinic receptors, releasing G protein βγ subunits that activate a potassium current (IKACh) in nodal and atrial cells. The resulting increase in K+ conductance opposes membrane depolarization, slowing the rate of rise of phase 4 of the action potential. Conversely, augmentation of sympathetic nervous system tone increases myocardial catecholamine concentrations, which activate both α- and β-adrenergic receptors. The effect of β1-adrenergic stimulation predominates in pacemaking cells, augmenting both L-type Ca current (ICa-L) and If, thus increasing the slope of phase 4. Enhanced sympathetic nervous system activity can dramatically increase the rate of firing of SA nodal cells, producing sinus tachycardia with rates >200 beats/min. By contrast, the increased rate of firing of Purkinje cells is more limited, rarely producing ventricular tachyarrhythmias >120 beats/min.
Normal automaticity may be affected by a number of other factors associated with heart disease. Hypokalemia and ischemia may reduce the activity of Na, K-ATPase, thereby reducing the background repolarizing current and enhancing phase 4 diastolic depolarization. The end result would be an increase in the spontaneous firing rate of pacemaking cells. Modest increases in extracellular potassium may render the maximum diastolic potential more positive, thereby also increasing the firing rate of pacemaking cells. A more significant increase in [K+]o, however, renders the heart inexcitable by depolarizing the membrane potential.
Normal or enhanced automaticity of subsidiary latent pacemakers produces escape rhythms in the setting of failure of more dominant pacemakers. Suppression of a pacemaker cell by a faster rhythm leads to an increased intracellular Na+ load ([Na+]i), and extrusion of Na+ from the cell by Na, K-ATPase produces an increased background repolarizing current that slows phase 4 diastolic depolarization. At slower rates, [Na+]i is decreased, as is the activity of the Na, K-ATPase, resulting in progressively more rapid diastolic depolarization and warm-up of the tachycardia rate. Overdrive suppression and warm-up are characteristic of, but may not be observed in, all automatic tachycardias. Abnormal conduction into tissue with enhanced automaticity (entrance block) may blunt or eliminate the phenomena of overdrive suppression and warm-up of automatic tissue.
Abnormal automaticity may produce atrial tachycardia, accelerated idioventricular rhythms, and ventricular tachycardia, particularly associated with ischemia and reperfusion. It has also been suggested that injury currents at the borders of ischemic myocardium may depolarize adjacent nonischemic tissue, predisposing to automatic ventricular tachycardia.
Afterdepolarizations and triggered automaticity
Triggered automaticity or activity refers to impulse initiation that is dependent on afterdepolarizations (Fig. 14-3). Afterdepolarizations are membrane voltage oscillations that occur during (early afterdepolarizations, EADs) or after (delayed afterdepolarizations, DADs) an action potential.
Schematic action potentials with early after- depolarizations (EADs) and delayed afterdepolarizations (DADs). Afterdepolarizations are spontaneous depolarizations in cardiac myocytes. EADs occur before the end of the action potential (phases 2 and 3), interrupting repolarization. DADs occur during phase 4 of the action potential after completion of repolarization. The cellular mechanisms of EADs and DADs differ (see text).
The cellular feature common to the induction of DADs is the presence of an increased Ca2+ load in the cytosol and sarcoplasmic reticulum. Digitalis glycoside toxicity, catecholamines, and ischemia all can enhance Ca2+ loading sufficiently to produce DADs. Accumulation of lysophospholipids in ischemic myocardium with consequent Na+ and Ca2+ overload has been suggested as a mechanism for DADs and triggered automaticity. Cells from damaged areas or cells that survive a myocardial infarction may display spontaneous release of calcium from the sarcoplasmic reticulum, and this may generate “waves” of intracellular calcium elevation and arrhythmias.
EADs occur during the action potential and interrupt the orderly repolarization of the myocyte. Traditionally, EADs have been thought to arise from action potential prolongation and reactivation of depolarizing currents, but more recent experimental evidence suggests a previously unappreciated interrelationship between intracellular calcium loading and EADs. Cytosolic calcium may increase when action potentials are prolonged. This, in turn, appears to enhance L-type Ca current, further prolonging action potential duration as well as providing the inward current driving EADs. Intracellular calcium loading by action potential prolongation may also enhance the likelihood of DADs. The interrelationship among intracellular [Ca2+], EADs, and DADs may be one explanation for the susceptibility of hearts that are calcium loaded (e.g., in ischemia or congestive heart failure) to develop arrhythmias, particularly on exposure to action potential–prolonging drugs.
EAD-triggered arrhythmias exhibit rate dependence. In general, the amplitude of an EAD is augmented at slow rates when action potentials are longer. Indeed, a fundamental condition that underlies the development of EADs is action potential and QT prolongation. Hypokalemia, hypomagnesemia, bradycardia, and, most commonly, drugs can predispose to the generation of EADs, invariably in the context of prolonging the action potential. Antiarrhythmics with class IA and III action (see below) produce action potential and QT prolongation intended to be therapeutic but frequently causing arrhythmias. Noncardiac drugs such as phenothiazines, nonsedating antihistamines, and some antibiotics can also prolong the action potential duration and predispose to EAD-mediated triggered arrhythmias. Decreased [K+]o paradoxically may decrease membrane potassium currents (particularly the delayed rectifier current, IKr) in the ventricular myocyte, explaining why hypokalemia causes action potential prolongation and EADs. In fact, potassium infusions in patients with the congenital long QT syndrome (LQTS) and in those with drug-induced acquired QT prolongation shorten the QT interval.
EAD-mediated triggered activity probably underlies initiation of the characteristic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia, torsades des pointes, seen in patients with congenital and acquired forms of LQTS. Structural heart disease, such as cardiac hypertrophy and heart failure, may also delay ventricular repolarization (so-called electrical remodeling) and predispose to arrhythmias related to abnormalities of repolarization. The abnormalities of repolarization in hypertrophy and heart failure are often magnified by concomitant drug therapy or electrolyte disturbances.
Abnormal impulse conduction: reentry
The most common arrhythmia mechanism is reentry resulting from abnormal electrical impulse conduction and is defined as the circulation of an activation wave around an inexcitable obstacle. The requirements for reentry are two electrophysiologically dissimilar pathways for impulse propagation around an inexcitable region (Fig. 14-4). Reentry can occur around a fixed anatomic structure (e.g., myocardial scar), with a stable pattern of cardiac depolarization moving in series over the anterograde and retrograde limbs of the circuit. This form of reentry, referred to as anatomic reentry or excitable gap reentry (see below), is initiated when a depolarizing wavefront encounters an area of unidirectional conduction block in the retrograde limb of the circuit. Conduction across the anterograde limb occurs with a delay that, if of sufficient duration, allows for recovery of conduction in the retrograde limb with reentry of the depolarization wave into the retrograde limb of the circuit. Sustained reentry requires that the functional dimension of depolarized tissue or the tachycardia wavelength (λ = conduction velocity × refractory period) fits within the total anatomic length of the circuit, referred to as the path length. When the path length of the circuit exceeds the λ of the tachycardia, the region between the head of the activation wave and the refractory tail is referred to as the excitable gap. Anatomically determined, excitable gap reentry can explain several clinically important tachycardias, such as AV reentry, atrial flutter, bundle branch reentry ventricular tachycardia, and ventricular tachycardia in scarred myocardium.
Schematic diagram of reentry. A. The circuit contains two limbs, one with slow conduction. B. A premature impulse blocks in the fast pathway and conducts over the slow pathway, allowing the fast pathway to recover so that the activation wave can reenter the fast pathway from the retrograde direction. C. During sustained reentry utilizing such a circuit, a gap (excitable gap) exists between the activating head of the wave and the recovering tail. D. One mechanism of termination of reentry occurs when the conduction and recovery characteristics of the circuit change and the activating head of the wave collides with the tail, extinguishing the tachycardia.
Reentrant arrhythmias may exist in the heart in the absence of an excitable gap and with a tachycardia wavelength nearly the same size as the path length. In this case, the wavefront propagates through partially refractory tissue without a fixed anatomic obstacle and no fully excitable gap; this is referred to as leading circle reentry, a form of functional reentry (reentry that depends on functional properties of the tissue). Unlike excitable gap reentry, there is no fixed anatomic circuit in leading circle reentry, and it may, therefore, not be possible to disrupt the tachycardia with pacing or destruction of a part of the circuit. Furthermore, the circuit in leading circle reentry tends to be less stable than that in excitable gap reentrant arrhythmias, with large variations in cycle length and a predilection to termination. There is strong evidence to suggest that less organized arrhythmias, such as atrial and ventricular fibrillation, are associated with more complex activation of the heart and are due to functional reentry.
Catheter-based and pharmacologic therapies for reentrant arrhythmias are designed to disrupt the anatomic circuit or alter the relationship between the wavelength and path length of the arrhythmia circuit, eliminating pathologic conduction. For example, antiarrhythmic drugs that prolong the action potential (Class III) are effective if they sufficiently prolong the λ such that it can no longer fit within the anatomic circuit. Catheter ablation is often undertaken with the goal of identifying and destroying a critical limb of the reentrant circuit (i.e., ablation of the cavotricuspid isthmus in the treatment of typical, right atrial flutter). Due to the less defined pathways of myocardial activation seen in functional reentry, ablation of these rhythms tends to target initiating triggers (e.g., pulmonary vein potentials in catheter ablation of atrial fibrillation) rather than the anatomic circuit.
Structural heart disease is associated with changes in conduction and refractoriness that increase the risk of reentrant arrhythmias. Chronically ischemic myocardium exhibits a downregulation of the gap junction channel protein (connexin 43) that carries intercellular ionic current. The border zones of infarcted and failing ventricular myocardium exhibit not only functional alterations of ionic currents but also remodeling of tissue and altered distribution of gap junctions. The changes in gap junction channel expression and distribution, in combination with macroscopic tissue alterations, support a role for slowed conduction in reentrant arrhythmias that complicate chronic coronary artery disease (CAD). Aged human atrial myocardium exhibits altered conduction, manifest as highly fractionated atrial electrograms, producing an ideal substrate for the reentry that may underlie the very common development of atrial fibrillation in the elderly.