Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common clinically relevant arrhythmia and is associated with increased morbidity and mortality. The incidence of AF is expected to continue to rise with the aging of the population. AF is generally considered to be a progressive condition, occurring first in a paroxysmal form, then in persistent, and then long-standing persistent (chronic or permanent) forms. However, not all patients go through every phase, and the time spent in each can vary widely. Research over the past decades has identified a multitude of pathophysiological processes contributing to the initiation, maintenance, and progression of AF. However, many aspects of AF pathophysiology remain incompletely understood. In this review, we discuss the cellular and molecular electrophysiology of AF initiation, maintenance, and progression, predominantly based on recent data obtained in human tissue and animal models. The central role of Ca(2+)-handling abnormalities in both focal ectopic activity and AF substrate progression is discussed, along with the underlying molecular basis. We also deal with the ionic determinants that govern AF initiation and maintenance, as well as the structural remodeling that stabilizes AF-maintaining re-entrant mechanisms and finally makes the arrhythmia refractory to therapy. In addition, we highlight important gaps in our current understanding, particularly with respect to the translation of these concepts to the clinical setting. Ultimately, a comprehensive understanding of AF pathophysiology is expected to foster the development of improved pharmacological and nonpharmacological therapeutic approaches and to greatly improve clinical management.
Keywords: atrial fibrillation; atrial remodeling; calcium; electrophysiology.