Atrial fibrillation is associated with the fibrotic remodelling of adipose tissue in the subepicardium of human and sheep atria

Eur Heart J. 2017 Jan 1;38(1):53-61. doi: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehv625. Epub 2015 Nov 26.


Aims: Accumulation of atrial adipose tissue is associated with atrial fibrillation (AF). However, the underlying mechanisms remain poorly understood. We examined the relationship between the characteristics of fatty infiltrates of the atrial myocardium and the history of AF.

Methods and results: Atrial samples, collected in 92 patients during cardiac surgery and in a sheep model of persistent AF, were subjected to a detailed histological analysis. In sections of human right atrial samples, subepicardial fatty infiltrations were commonly observed in the majority of patients. A clear difference in the appearance and fibrotic content of these fatty infiltrations was observed. Fibro-fatty infiltrates predominated in patients with permanent AF (no AF: 37 ± 24% vs. paroxysmal AF: 50 ± 21% vs. permanent AF: 64 ± 23%, P < 0.001). An inverse correlation between fibrotic remodelling and the amount of subepicardial adipose tissue suggested the progressive fibrosis of fatty infiltrates with permanent AF. This hypothesis was tested in a sheep model of AF. In AF sheep, an increased accumulation of peri-atrial fat depot was observed on cardiac magnetic resonance imaging and dense fibro-fatty infiltrations predominated in the left atria of AF sheep. Cellular inflammation, mainly consisting of functional cytotoxic T lymphocytes, was observed together with adipocyte cell death in human atria.

Conclusion: Atrial fibrillation is associated with the fibrosis of subepicardial fatty infiltrates, a process in which cytotoxic lymphocytes might be involved. This remodelling of the atrial subepicardium could contribute to structural remodelling forming a substrate for AF.

Keywords: Adipose tissue; Atrial fibrillation; Atrial myocardium; Fibrosis.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / pathology*
  • Aged
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Atrial Fibrillation / pathology*
  • Atrial Remodeling / physiology*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Female
  • Fibrosis / physiopathology
  • Heart Atria
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Angiography
  • Male
  • Myocardium / pathology*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sheep