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Chapter: Basic & Clinical Pharmacology : Agents Used in Cardiac Arrhythmias

Basic Pharmacology of the Antiarrhythmic Agents

Arrhythmias are caused by abnormal pacemaker activity or abnormal impulse propagation.


Mechanisms of Action

Arrhythmias are caused by abnormal pacemaker activity or abnormal impulse propagation. Thus, the aim of therapy of the arrhyth-mias is to reduce ectopic pacemaker activity and modify conduction or refractoriness in reentry circuits to disable circus movement. The major pharmacologic mechanisms currently available for accomplishing these goals are (1) sodium channel blockade, (2) blockade of sympathetic autonomic effects in the heart, (3) pro-longation of the effective refractory period, and (4) calcium chan-nel blockade.

Antiarrhythmic drugs decrease the automaticity of ectopic pace-makers more than that of the SA node. They also reduce conduction and excitability and increase the refractory period to a greater extent in depolarized tissue than in normally polarized tissue. This is accomplished chiefly by selectively blocking the sodium or calcium channels of depolarized cells (Figure 14–9). Therapeutically useful channel-blocking drugs bind readily to activated channels (ie, dur-ing phase 0) or inactivated channels (ie, during phase 2) but bind poorly or not at all to rested channels. Therefore, these drugs block electrical activity when there is a fast tachycardia (many channel activations and inactivations per unit time) or when there is signifi-cant loss of resting potential (many inactivated channels during rest). This type of drug action is often described as use-dependent or state-dependent; that is, channels that are being used frequently, or in an inactivated state, are more susceptible to block. Channels in normal cells that become blocked by a drug during normal activation-inactivation cycles will rapidly lose the drug from the receptors during the resting portion of the cycle (Figure 14–9). Channels in myocardium that is chronically depolarized (ie, has a resting potential more positive than −75 mV) recover from block very slowly if at all (see also right panel, Figure 14–4).


In cells with abnormal automaticity, most of these drugs reduce the phase 4 slope by blocking either sodium or calcium channels, thereby reducing the ratio of sodium (or calcium) permeability to potassium permeability. As a result, the membrane potential during phase 4 stabilizes closer to the potassium equilibrium potential. In addition, some agents may increase the threshold (make it more positive). β-Adrenoceptor–blocking drugs indirectly reduce the phase 4 slope by blocking the positive chronotropic action of nor-epinephrine in the heart.

In reentry arrhythmias, which depend on critically depressed conduction, most antiarrhythmic agents slow conduction fur-ther by one or both of two mechanisms: (1) steady-state reduction in the number of available unblocked channels, which reduces the excitatory currents to a level below that required for propagation (Figure 14–4, left); and (2) prolonga-tion of recovery time of the channels still able to reach the rested and available state, which increases the effective refractory period (Figure 14–4, right). As a result, early extrasystoles are unable to propagate at all; later impulses propagate more slowly and are subject to bidirectional conduction block.

By these mechanisms, antiarrhythmic drugs can suppress ectopic automaticity and abnormal conduction occurring in depolarized cells—rendering them electrically silent—while minimally affecting the electrical activity in normally polarized parts of the heart. However, as dosage is increased, these agents also depress conduction in normal tissue, eventually resulting in drug-in-duced arrhythmias. Furthermore, a drug concentration that istherapeutic (antiarrhythmic) under the initial circumstances of treatment may become “proarrhythmic” (arrhythmogenic) during fast heart rates (more development of block), acidosis (slower recovery from block for most drugs), hyperkalemia, or ischemia.

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