Background: Atrial fibrillation, the most common sustained cardiac arrhythmia and a major cause of stroke, results from simultaneous reentrant wavelets. Its spontaneous initiation has not been studied.
Methods: We studied 45 patients with frequent episodes of atrial fibrillation (mean [+/-SD] duration, 344+/-326 minutes per 24 hours) refractory to drug therapy. The spontaneous initiation of atrial fibrillation was mapped with the use of multielectrode catheters designed to record the earliest electrical activity preceding the onset of atrial fibrillation and associated atrial ectopic beats. The accuracy of the mapping was confirmed by the abrupt disappearance of triggering atrial ectopic beats after ablation with local radio-frequency energy.
Results: A single point of origin of atrial ectopic beats was identified in 29 patients, two points of origin were identified in 9 patients, and three or four points of origin were identified in 7 patients, for a total of 69 ectopic foci. Three foci were in the right atrium, 1 in the posterior left atrium, and 65 (94 percent) in the pulmonary veins (31 in the left superior, 17 in the right superior, 11 in the left inferior, and 6 in the right inferior pulmonary vein). The earliest activation was found to have occurred 2 to 4 cm inside the veins, marked by a local depolarization preceding the atrial ectopic beats on the surface electrocardiogram by 106+/-24 msec. Atrial fibrillation was initiated by a sudden burst of rapid depolarizations (340 per minute). A local depolarization could also be recognized during sinus rhythm and abolished by radiofrequency ablation. During a follow-up period of 8+/-6 months after ablation, 28 patients (62 percent) had no recurrence of atrial fibrillation.
Conclusions: The pulmonary veins are an important source of ectopic beats, initiating frequent paroxysms of atrial fibrillation. These foci respond to treatment with radio-frequency ablation.