Abstract

In 1992 a new syndrome was described consisting of syncopal episodes and/or sudden death in patients with a structurally normal heart and an electrocardiogram (ECG) characteristic of right bundle branch block with ST segment elevation in leads V 1 to V 3 . The disease is genetically determined, with an autosomal dominant pattern of transmission. Three different mutations that affect the structure and function of the cardiac sodium channel gene SCN5A have been identified. Two mutations result in total loss of function of the sodium channel. The other mutation results in acceleration of the recovery of the sodium channel from inactivation. The incidence of the disease is difficult to estimate, but it causes 4 to 10 sudden deaths per 10 000 inhabitants per year in areas like Thailand and Laos. In these countries, the disease represents the most frequent cause of death in young adults. Up to 50% of the yearly sudden deaths in patients with a structurally normal heart are caused by this syndrome. The diagnosis is easily made by means of the ECG. The presence of concealed and intermittent forms, however, make the diagnosis difficult in some patients. The ECG can be modulated by changes in autonomic balance and the administration of antiarrhythmic drugs. Beta-adrenergic stimulation normalizes the ECG, while intravenous ajmaline, flecainide or procainamide accentuate ST segment elevation and are capable of unmasking concealed and intermittent forms of the disease. Recent data suggest that loss of the action potential dome in the right ventricular epicardium but not the endocardium underlies ST segment elevation seen in the Brugada syndrome. Also, electrical heterogeneity within the right ventricular epicardium leads to the development of closely coupled extrasystoles via a phase 2 reentrant mechanism, which then precipitates ventricular tachycardia–ventricular fibrillation. Right ventricular epicardium is preferentially affected because of the predominance of transient outward current in this tissue. Antiarrhythmic drugs like amiodarone and beta-blockers do not prevent sudden death in symptomatic or asymptomatic individuals. Gene therapy may offer a cure in future years. Implantation of an automatic cardioverter–defibrillator is the only currently proven effective therapy.

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