Pulsed low-energy stimulation initiates electric turbulence in cardiac tissue


Interruptions in nonlinear wave propagation, commonly referred to as wave breaks, are typical of many complex excitable systems. In the heart they lead to lethal rhythm disorders, the so-called arrhythmias, which are one of the main causes of sudden death in the industrialized world. Progress in the treatment and therapy of cardiac arrhythmias requires a detailed understanding of the triggers and dynamics of these wave breaks. In particular, two very important questions are: 1) What determines the potential of a wave break to initiate re-entry? and 2) How do these breaks evolve such that the system is able to maintain spatiotemporally chaotic electrical activity? Here we approach these questions numerically using optogenetics in an in silico model of human atrial tissue that has undergone chronic atrial fibrillation (cAF) remodelling. In the lesser studied sub-threshold illumination régime, we discover a new mechanism of wave break initiation in cardiac tissue that occurs for gentle slopes of the restitution characteristics. This mechanism involves the creation of conduction blocks through a combination of wavefront-waveback interaction, reshaping of the wave profile and heterogeneous recovery from the excitation of the spatially extended medium, leading to the creation of re-excitable windows for sustained re-entry. This finding is an important contribution to cardiac arrhythmia research as it identifies scenarios in which low-energy perturbations to cardiac rhythm can be potentially life-threatening.

PLOS Computational Biology 17: e1009476