Researchers have modelled arrhythmia in real time, using powerful X-rays.
Arrhythmia, characterised by the heart beating too fast, too slow or inconsistently, may precipitate a decrease of blood flow to the brain and body, resulting in heart palpitation, dizziness, fainting, or even death. It may be too tiny for a microscope to observe.
The 3D animated model reveals for the first time how gene mutations affect the crucial pathway in heart muscle cells that controls its rhythm.
"Our heart runs on calcium," says molecular biologist Filip Van Petegem of Canada's University of British Columbia. "Every heartbeat is preceded by calcium ions rushing into heart muscle cells".
"Then, a special protein opens the pathway for calcium to be released from compartments within these cells, and in turn initiates the contraction," adds Petegem, according to a British Columbia statement.
Mutations to the gene that forms this protein have been linked to arrhythmia and sudden cardiac deaths in otherwise healthy people.
"Reconstructing the pathway and its dynamic motion enabled us to see the process in action," says Petegem. "We found that the mutations destabilize the pathway's structure, causing calcium to be released prematurely."
"Finding a way to stabilize the pathway could prevent these deadly conditions and save lives," adds Petegem.
These findings were presented at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston.