Interactions between cardiac myofibroblasts and myocytes may slow conduction and generate spontaneous beating in fibrosis, increasing the chance of life-threatening arrhythmia. While co-culture studies have shown that myofibroblasts can affect cardiomyocyte electrophysiology in vitro, the extent of myofibroblast-myocyte electrical conductance in a syncytium is unknown. In this neonatal rat study, cardiac myofibroblasts were transduced with Channelrhodopsin-2, which allowed acute and selective increase of myofibroblast current, and plated on top of cardiomyocytes. Optical mapping revealed significantly decreased conduction velocity (− 27 ± 6%, p < 10–3), upstroke rate (− 13 ± 4%, p = 0.002), and action potential duration (− 14 ± 7%, p = 0.004) in co-cultures when 0.017 mW/mm2 light was applied, as well as focal spontaneous beating in 6/7 samples and a decreased cycle length (− 36 ± 18%, p = 0.002) at 0.057 mW/mm2 light. In silico modeling of the experiments reproduced the experimental findings and suggested the light levels used in experiments produced excess current similar in magnitude to endogenous myofibroblast current. Fitting the model to experimental data predicted a tissue-level electrical conductance across the 3-D interface between myofibroblasts and cardiomyocytes of ~ 5 nS/cardiomyocyte, and showed how increased myofibroblast-myocyte conductance, increased myofibroblast/myocyte capacitance ratio, and increased myofibroblast current, which occur in fibrosis, can work in tandem to produce pro-arrhythmic increases in conduction and spontaneous beating.
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