Recent theoretical models of cardiac electrical stimulation or defibrillation predict a complex spatial pattern of transmembrane potential (Vm) around a stimulating electrode, resulting from the formation of virtual electrodes of reversed polarity. The pattern of membrane polarization has been attributed to the anisotropic structure of the tissue. To verify such model predictions experimentally, an optical technique using a fluorescent voltage-sensitive dye was used to map the spatial distribution of Vm around a 150-microns-radius extracellular unipolar electrode. An S1-S2 stimulation protocol was used, and vm was measured during an S2 pulse having an intensity equal to 10x the cathodal diastolic threshold of excitation. The recordings were obtained on the endocardial surface of bullfrog atrium in directions parallel and perpendicular to the cardiac fibers. In the longitudinal fiber direction, the membrane depolarized for cathodal pulses (and hyperpolarized for anodal pulses) but only in a region within 445 +/- 112 microns (and 616 +/- 78 microns for anodal pulses) from the center of the electrode (n = 9). Outside this region, vm reversed polarity and reached a local maximum at 922 +/- 136 microns (and 988 +/- 117 microns for anodal pulses) (n = 9). Beyond this point vm decayed to zero over a distance of 1.5–2 mm. In the transverse fiber direction, the membrane depolarized for cathodal pulses (and hyperpolarized for anodal pulses) at all distances from the electrode. The amplitude of the response decreased with distance from the electrode with an exponential decay constant of 343 +/- 110 microns for cathodal pulses and 253 +/- 91 microns for anodal pulses (n = 7). The results were qualitatively similar in both fiber directions when the atrium was bathed in a solution containing ionic channel blockers. A two-dimensional computer model was formulated for the case of highly anisotropic cardiac tissue and qualitatively accounts for nearly all the observed spatial and temporal behavior of vm in the two fiber directions. The relationships between vm and both the "activating function" and extracellular potential gradient are discussed.
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