Reaction Diffusion Equations and Electrical Signals in the Heart

1 August 2017

Since the pioneering work of Hodgkin and Huxley , we know that electrical signals propagate along a nerve fiber via ions that flow in and out of the fiber, generating a current. The voltages these currents generate are subject to a diffusion equation, which is a reduced form of the Maxwell equation. The result is a reaction (electrical currents specified by an ODE) coupled to a diffusion equation, hence the term reaction diffusion equation.

The heart is composed of nerve fibers, wound in an ascending spiral fashion along the heart chamber. Modeling not individual nerve fibers, but many within a single mesh block, leads to partial differential equation coupled to the reaction ODE.

As with the nerve fiber equation, these cardiac electrical equations allow a propagating wave front, which normally moves from the bottom to the top of the heart, giving rise to contractions and a normal heart beat, to accomplish the pumping of blood.

The equations are only borderline stable and also allow a chaotic, turbulent type wave front motion called fibrillation.

In this lecture, we will explain the 1D traveling wave solution, the 3D normal wave front motion and the chaotic state.

The chaotic state is easiest to understand in 2D, where it consists of spiral waves rotating about a center. The 3D version of this wave motion is called a scroll wave, resembling a fluid vortex tube.

In simplified models of reaction diffusion equations, we can explain much of this phenomena in an analytically understandable fashion, as a sequence of period doubling transitions along the path to chaos, reminiscent of the laminar to turbulent transition.

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