Fibroblasts play a significant role in the development of electrical and mechanical dysfunction of the heart; however, the underlying mechanisms are only partially understood. One widely studied mechanism suggests that fibroblasts produce excess extracellular matrix, resulting in collagenous septa that slow propagation, cause zig-zag conduction paths, and decouple cardiomyocytes, resulting in a substrate for cardiac arrhythmia. An emerging mechanism suggests that fibroblasts promote arrhythmogenesis through direct electrical interactions with cardiomyocytes via gap junction (GJ) channels. In the heart, three major connexin (Cx) isoforms, Cx40, Cx43, and Cx45, form GJ channels in cell-type-specific combinations. Because each Cx is characterized by a unique time- and transjunctional voltage-dependent profile, we investigated whether the electrophysiological contributions of fibroblasts would vary with the specific composition of the myocyte-fibroblast (M-F) GJ channel. Due to the challenges of systematically modifying Cxs in vitro, we coupled native cardiomyocytes with in silico fibroblast and GJ channel electrophysiology models using the dynamic-clamp technique. We found that there is a reduction in the early peak of the junctional current during the upstroke of the action potential (AP) due to GJ channel gating. However, effects on the cardiomyocyte AP morphology were similar regardless of the specific type of GJ channel (homotypic Cx43 and Cx45, and heterotypic Cx43/Cx45 and Cx45/Cx43). To illuminate effects at the tissue level, we performed multiscale simulations of M-F coupling. First, we developed a cell-specific model of our dynamic-clamp experiments and investigated changes in the underlying membrane currents during M-F coupling. Second, we performed two-dimensional tissue sheet simulations of cardiac fibrosis and incorporated GJ channels in a cell type-specific manner. We determined that although GJ channel gating reduces junctional current, it does not significantly alter conduction velocity during cardiac fibrosis relative to static GJ coupling. These findings shed more light on the complex electrophysiological interplay between cardiac fibroblasts and myocytes.
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