The field of cardiac electrophysiology was ushered in with the development of the electrocardiogram (ECG) by Einthoven at the turn of the twentieth century. Subsequent recording of cellular membrane currents demonstrated that the body surface ECG is the timed sum of the cellular action potentials in the atria and ventricles. In the late 1960s, the development of intracavitary recording, in particular, His bundle electrograms, marked the beginning of contemporary clinical electrophysiology. Adoption of radiofrequency technology to ablate cardiac tissue in the early 1990s heralded the birth of interventional cardiac electrophysiology.
The clinical problem of sudden death caused by ventricular arrhythmias, most commonly in the setting of coronary artery obstruction, was recognized as early as the late nineteenth century. The problem was vexing and led to the development of pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic therapies, including transthoracic defibrillators, cardiac massage, and, most recently, implantable defibrillators. Over time the limitations of antiarrhythmic drug therapy have been highlighted repeatedly in clinical trials, and now ablation and devices are first-line therapy for a number of cardiac arrhythmias.
In the last two decades, the genetic basis of a number of heritable arrhythmias has been elucidated, revealing important insights into the mechanisms not only of these rare arrhythmias but also of similar rhythm disturbances observed in more common forms of heart disease.
The normal cardiac impulse is generated by pacemaker cells in the sinoatrial node situated at the junction of the right atrium and the superior vena cava (see Fig. 268-1). This impulse is transmitted slowly through nodal tissue to the anatomically complex atria, where it is conducted more rapidly to the atrioventricular node (AVN), inscribing the P wave of the ECG (see Fig. 268-2). There is a perceptible delay in conduction through the anatomically and functionally heterogeneous AVN. The time needed for activation of the atria and the AVN delay is represented as the PR interval of the ECG. The AVN is the only electrical connection between the atria and the ventricles in the normal heart. The electrical impulse emerges from the AVN and is transmitted to the His-Purkinje system, specifically the common bundle of His, then the left and right bundle branches, and then to the Purkinje network, facilitating activation of ventricular muscle. In normal circumstances, the ventricles are activated rapidly in a well-defined fashion that is determined by the course of the Purkinje network, and this inscribes the QRS complex (see Fig. 268-2). Recovery of electrical excitability occurs more slowly and is governed by the time of activation and duration of regional action potentials. The relative brevity of epicardial action potentials in the ventricle results in repolarization that occurs first on the epicardial surface and then proceeds to the endocardium, which inscribes a T wave normally of the same polarity as the QRS complex. The duration of ventricular activation and recovery is ...