Ventricular fibrillation: mechanisms of initiation and maintenance

Annu Rev Physiol. 2000;62:25-50. doi: 10.1146/annurev.physiol.62.1.25.


Ventricular fibrillation (VF) is the major immediate cause of sudden cardiac death. Traditionally, VF has been defined as turbulent cardiac electrical activity, which implies a large amount of irregularity in the electrical waves that underlie ventricular excitation. During VF, the heart rate is too high (> 550 excitations/minute) to allow adequate pumping of blood. In the electrocardiogram (ECG), ventricular complexes that are ever-changing in frequency, contour, and amplitude characterize VF. This article reviews prevailing theories for the initiation and maintenance of VF, as well as its spatio-temporal organization. Particular attention is given to recent experiments and computer simulations suggesting that VF may be explained in terms of highly periodic three-dimensional rotors that activate the ventricles at exceedingly high frequency. Such rotors may show at least two different behaviors: (a) At one extreme, they may drift throughout the heart at high speeds producing beat-to-beat changes in the activation sequence. (b) At the other extreme, rotors may be relatively stationary, activating the ventricles at such high frequencies that the wave fronts emanating from them breakup at varying distances, resulting in complex spatio-temporal patterns of fibrillatory conduction. In either case, the recorded ECG patterns are indistinguishable from VF. The data discussed have paved the way for a better understanding of the mechanisms of VF in the normal, as well as the diseased, human heart.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Ventricular Fibrillation / etiology
  • Ventricular Fibrillation / physiopathology*