The mechanisms responsible for perpetuation of human persistent atrial fibrillation (AF) are controversial and probably vary between individuals. A wide spectrum of mechanisms have been described in experimental studies, ranging from a single localized stable (focal/reentrant) source, to multiple sources, up to diffuse bi-atrial wavelets. We characterized AF drivers in patients with persistent AF (lasting less than 1 year) using novel high resolution mapping, imaging and modelling approaches with the objective of evaluating their relationship to atrial structural heterogeneities. Using panoramic non-invasive mapping in humans, focal or reentrant sources driving AF waves were identified, originating from multiple distinct regions and exhibiting short lifespans and periodic recurrences in the same locations. The reentrant driver regions harboured long, fractionated electrograms covering most of the fibrillatory cycle lengths with varying beat-to-beat sequences suggestive of unstable trajectories attached to slow conducting heterogeneous tissue. MRI atrial imaging demonstrated that such drivers preferentially clustered at the borders of fibrotic atrial regions. In patient-specific computer simulations, sustained AF was shown to be driven by meandering transitory reentries attached to fibrosis borders expressing specific metrics in density and extent. Finally, random microstructural alterations devoid of cellular electrical changes were modelled, showing that a percolation mechanism could also explain atrial reentries and complex fractionated electrograms. These data from clinical, imaging and computational studies strongly suggest that intermittent and spatially unstable drivers anchoring to structural heterogeneities are a major pathophysiological mechanism in human persistent atrial fibrillation.
© 2016 The Authors. The Journal of Physiology © 2016 The Physiological Society.