Extracellular Spaces and Cardiac Conduction

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Virginia Tech

Despite decades of research and thousands of studies on cardiac electrophysiology, cardiovascular disease remains among the leading causes of death in the United States today. Despite substantially beneficial advances, we have largely shifted cardiovascular disease from an acute to a chronic issue. It is therefore clear that our current understanding of the heart's functions remain inadequate and we must search for untapped therapeutic approaches to eliminate these deadly and costly ailments once and for all. This thesis will focus on the electrophysiology of the heart, specifically the mechanisms of cell-to-cell conduction. Canonically, the understood mechanism of cardiac conduction is through gap junctions (GJ) following a cable-like conduction model. While both experimentally and mathematically, this understanding of conduction has explained cardiac electrical behavior, it is also incomplete, as evidenced by recent conflicting modeling and experimental data. The overall goal of this thesis is to explore a structure modulating an ephaptic, or electric field, cellular coupling mechanism: the GJ-adjacent perinexus, with three specific aims. First, I identified the perinexus – a recently-established structure in rodent myocardium – in human atrial tissue. I also observed a significant tendency for open-heart surgery patients with pre-operative atrial fibrillation to have wider perinexi, indicating a possibly targetable mechanism of atrial fibrillation, one of the costliest, and most poorly-understood cardiac diseases. Next, I developed a high-throughput, high-resolution method for quantifying the perinexus. Finally, I sought to reconcile a major controversy in the field: whether cardiac edema could either be beneficial or harmful to cardiac conduction. Using a Langendorff perfusion model, I added osmotic agents of various sizes to guinea pig hearts and measured electrical and structural parameters. My findings suggest that while cardiac conduction is multifaceted and influenced by several parameters, the strongest correlation is an inverse relationship between conduction velocity and the width of the perinexus. This study is the first to osmotically expand and narrow the perinexus and show an inverse correlation with conduction. Importantly, my conduction data cannot be explained by factors consistent with a cable-like conduction mechanism, indicating once again that the perinexus could be a therapeutic target for a myriad of cardiac conduction diseases.

Cardiac, Perinexus, Ephaptic Coupling, Atrial Fibrillation, Cardiac Conduction