Mental stress and sudden cardiac death: asymmetric midbrain activity as a linking mechanism.
Brain stimulation can provoke a variety of arrhythmias and lower the ventricular vulnerable threshold. In the animal with acute myocardial ischemia such stimuli suffice to provoke ventricular fibrillation. Vagal neural traffic or adrenal catecholamines are not the conduits for this brain-heart linkage. Accompanying increases in heart rate or blood pressure are not prerequisites for the changes in cardiac excitability. Increased sympathetic activity, whether induced by neural or neurohumoral action, predisposes the heart to ventricular fibrillation. Protection can be achieved with surgical and pharmacologic denervation or reflex reduction in sympathetic tone. With acute myocardial ischemia, augmented sympathetic activity accounts for the early surge of ectopic activity frequently precipitating ventricular fibrillation. Asymmetries in sympathetic neural discharge may also contribute to the genesis of serious arrhythmias. The vagus nerve, through its muscarinic action, exerts an indirect effect on cardiac vulnerability, the consequence of annulment of concomitant adrenergic influence, rather than of any direct cholinergic action on the ventricles. There exist anatomic, physiologic as well as molecular bases for such interactions. Available experimental evidence indicates that environmental stresses of diverse types can injure the heart, lower the threshold of cardiac vulnerability to ventricular fibrillation and, in the animal with coronary occlusion, provoke potentially malignant ventricular arrhythmias. Available evidence indicates that in man, as in the experimental animal, administration of catecholamines can induce ventricular arrhythmia, whereas vagal activity exerts an opposite effect. Furthermore, in certain subjects diverse stresses and various psychologic states provoke ventricular ectopic activity.