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INTRODUCTION: Complex cardiac arrhythmias often start and stop spontaneously. These poorly understood behaviors frequently are associated with pathologic modification of the structural heterogeneity and functional connectivity of the myocardium. To evaluate underlying mechanisms, we modify heterogeneity by varying the confluence of embryonic chick monolayer cultures that display complex bursting behaviors. A simple mathematical model was developed that reproduces the experimental behaviors and reveals possible generic mechanisms for bursting dynamics in heterogeneous excitable systems. METHODS AND RESULTS: Wave propagation was mapped in embryonic chick myocytes monolayers using calcium-sensitive dyes. Monolayer confluence was varied by plating cultures with different cell densities and by varying times in culture. At high plating densities, waves propagate without breaks, whereas monolayers plated at low densities display spirals with frequent breaks and irregular activation fronts. Monolayers at intermediate densities display bursting rhythms in which there is paroxysmal starting and stopping of spiral waves of activity. Similar spatiotemporal patterns of activity were also observed as a function of the time in culture; irregular activity dominates the first 30 hours, followed by repetitive bursting dynamics until 54 hours, after which periodic target patterns or stable spirals prevail. In some quiescent cultures derived from older embryos, it was possible to trigger pacemaker activity following a single activation. We are able to reproduce all of these behaviors by introducing spatial heterogeneity and varying neighborhood size, equivalent to cell connectivity, in a spontaneous cellular automaton model containing a rate-dependent fatigue term. CONCLUSION: We observe transitions from irregular propagating waves, to spiral waves that spontaneously start and stop, to target waves originating from localized pacemakers in cell culture and a simple theoretical model of heterogeneous excitable media. The results show how physiologic properties of spontaneous activity, heterogeneity, and fatigue can give rise to a wide range of different complex dynamic behaviors similar to clinically observed cardiac arrhythmias.

Original publication




Journal article


J Cardiovasc Electrophysiol

Publication Date





S229 - S236


Algorithms, Animals, Biological Clocks, Calcium, Calcium Signaling, Cell Communication, Cells, Cultured, Chick Embryo, Fluorescent Dyes, Heart, Image Processing, Computer-Assisted, Models, Biological, Models, Statistical, Myocardial Contraction, Myocardium