Abnormal heart rhythms

A detailed image of the heart on a black background

Over one million people in the UK suffer with an abnormal heart rhythm – or arrhythmia – but they can be difficult to diagnose until it's too late. 

Our research is helping to find people with these conditions and give them the best chance of living long, healthy lives.

An abnormal heart rhythm means your heart is beating too fast, too slow, or with an irregular pattern.  

Setting the pace

Sometimes rhythm disorders are treated with a pacemaker – a small electrical device which is implanted in to the chest to help the heart beat regularly. When we were founded back in 1961 pacemaker technology was still in its infancy but we have had a big part to play in overcoming the many technological hurdles.

Alan had a pacemaker fitted in June 2006. It took a few months for him to feel comfortable in his normal routine, but now he is back doing the things he loves.

Atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common abnormal heart rhythm, and increases the risk of stroke by 4 or 5 times. In atrial fibrillation the irregular heart beat can cause blood to pool and clot in the heart. If this clot escapes and is swept up into the brain it can result in a stroke. Atrial fibrillation contributes to tens of thousands of strokes each year in the UK.

Late BHF Professor Ronnie Campbell led a team that developed a technique to treat atrial fibrillation called radio-frequency ablation.

In atrial fibrillation malfunctioning electrical pathways in the heart trigger an abnormal heart rhythm. Ablation uses radio waves to destroy the faulty heart tissue that is responsible for these pathways.

Ablation is now a well-tested, routine procedure that can successfully treat some people with AF and therefore avoid strokes.

Ongoing research

BHF professor Barbara Casadei from the University of Oxford is one of the UK's leading experts in the complex processes behind AF.Professor Barbara Casadei

One of Professor Casadei's exciting research projects is looking at a possible link between AF and inflammation. Inflammation is a normal part of the body’s response to infection and injury, but is also linked to other diseases, particularly coronary heart disease (CHD), the major cause of heart attacks

Another strand of her work will investigate whether nitric oxide, an important signalling molecule, is involved in the development of AF.

Learn more about Professor Barbara Casadei and her life saving research. 

We already know that endurance athletes are more prone to several types of arrhythmia. We're funding Professor Mark Boyett and his team at the University of Manchester who are carrying out research to find out why.

They are looking at how exercise causes changes in the genes that are turned on or off in heart cells, and how these changes affect the heart’s electrical activity.

This research may reveal the direct cause of abnormal heart rhythm in endurance athletes and if there are ways of preventing these rhythm disturbances.

Professor Mark Boyett discussed his research and his fundraising on our science blog.

A potentially fatal faulty gene

A research team that we fund from The University of Manchester, led by BHF Professor David Eisner, has found that when someone has a particular faulty gene, a calcium channel in the heart can stay open for too long, making it leaky. This causes a rare but potentially fatal heart rhythm disorder called CPVT (catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia). Someone can be completely unaware that they have this condition until exercise kicks off the dormant arrhythmia, causing a fatal cardiac arrest. 

Clinicians in the team are now working with the families of those who have died from sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (SADS) to determine if they are also at risk. As the gene is inherited, the team want to know if everyone with the faulty gene develops an arrhythmia or if there are other genes involved.

Support heart research

This research was only possible through generous donations from the public, but there is still lots of work to do in the fight for every heartbeat.