Our successes with heart rhythm disorder research

What are abnormal heart rhythms?

An abnormal heart rhythm (also known as an arrhythmia) is when your heart beats too fast, too slow, or in an irregular pattern. Since we were founded in 1961, we’ve been working hard to improve and save the lives of people with abnormal heart rhythms. We’ve come a long way, but we have a lot left to do.

Read our information about abnormal heart rhythms, and common tests and treatments.

Mapping electrical pathways

BHF Professor Robert Anderson’s work mapping electrical pathways in the heart has reduced the likelihood of children having problems with their heartbeat after surgery.

His research clarified the location of electrical pathways around the holes in hearts caused by congenital defects. For example, in one type of hole in the heart, it was thought the electrical impulses ran underneath the hole. Robert Anderson’s research showed the pulses actually ran above it. This let surgeons know they should take extreme care in the top part of the hole, rather than the bottom. As a result, surgeons now place stitches in the correct places, reducing instances of heart rhythm problems after surgery - which previously had been a frequent problem.

Pioneering pacemaker technology

People with slow or irregular heartbeats may need a pacemaker to help them maintain a normal heartbeat. Early pacemakers were bulky and required a traumatic operation to open the chest, in order to sew electrodes directly onto the heart.

In the 1960s, we funded a group of scientists at St George’s Hospital in London. The research team, led by Dr Aubrey Leatham and chief technician Geoff Davies, revolutionised pacemaker technology. Their work and the work of scientists around the world have paved the way for the miniature, sophisticated pacemaker devices that we use today.

Turn on the radio (waves)

BHF Professor Ronnie Campbell led a team that developed a technique to treat atrial fibrillation (AF), called radiofrequency ablation.

In atrial fibrillation (AF), electrical pathways in the upper chambers of the heart become disrupted, triggering an abnormal heart rhythm. Ablation uses radio waves to destroy the faulty heart tissue responsible for these pathways. Thanks in part to this work, ablation is now a well-tested, routine procedure that can successfully treat some people with AF.