The mechanisms underpinning human cardiac fibrillation remain elusive. In his 1913 paper ‘On dynamic equilibrium in the heart’, Mines proposed that an activation wave front could propagate repeatedly in a circle, initiated by a stimulus in the vulnerable period. While the dynamics of activation and recovery are central to cardiac fibrillation, these physiological data are rarely used in clinical mapping. Fibrillation is a rapid irregular rhythm with spatiotemporal disorder resulting from two fundamental mechanisms – sources in preferred cardiac regions or spatially diffuse self-sustaining activity, i.e. with no preferred source. On close inspection, however, this debate may also reflect mapping technique. Fibrillation is initiated from triggers by regional dispersion in repolarization, slow conduction and wavebreak, then sustained by non-uniform interactions of these mechanisms. Notably, optical mapping of action potentials in atrial fibrillation (AF) show spiral wave sources (rotors) in nearly all studies including humans, while most traditional electrogram analyses of AF do not. Techniques may diverge in fibrillation because electrograms summate non-coherent waves within an undefined field whereas optical maps define waves with a visually defined field. Also fibrillation operates at the limits of activation and recovery, which are well represented by action potentials while fibrillatory electrograms poorly represent repolarization. We conclude by suggesting areas for study that may be used, until such time as optical mapping is clinically feasible, to improve mechanistic understanding and therapy of human cardiac fibrillation.
Hierarchical and non-hierarchical mechanisms for cardiac fibrillation. Cardiac fibrillation is characterized by disorganized activation and recovery both spatially and temporally. The central dichotomy is whether this disorder is sustained by preferred regional sources (hierarchical model), illustrated by a central driving rotor that replenishes surrounding fibrillatory waves, or self-sustains (non-hierarchical model), illustrated by transient wavelets. These mechanisms can also be divided by the type of mapping. Cardiac chambers depicted are right and left atria. (Modified from Calkins et al. 2012.)