The Autonomic Nervous System in Cardiac Electrophysiology: An Elegant Interaction and Emerging Concepts

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The autonomic nervous system plays an integral role in the modulation of normal cardiac electrophysiology. This is achieved via a complex network of pre- and postganglionic sympathetic and parasympathetic fibers that synapse on extrinsic and intrinsic cardiac ganglia and ultimately directly innervate cardiac myocytes. Alterations in autonomic tone may induce changes in local cellular electrophysiology that may manifest clinically in a number of ways, ranging from changes in heart rate to changes in heart rhythm. These relationships between autonomic tone and the evolution of cardiac dysrhythmias are areas of evolving research, with increasing evidence for a key role for autonomic ganglia in the pathogenesis of atrial fibrillation and sympathetic nerves in the predilection toward ventricular tachycardia in areas of myocardial scar. In this review, we highlight what is known about the anatomy and physiology of the cardiac autonomic nervous system, the evidence supporting the relationship of autonomic tone to clinically significant arrhythmias, and a variety of mechanisms (eg, direct ion channel effects) and diagnostic tools that exist to help define this relationship. Further emphasized are potential future avenues of research needed to elucidate the relationship between changes in normal autonomic tone and the pathogenesis of cardiac arrhythmias.

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