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BACKGROUND: Atrial electrical and structural remodelling in older individuals with cardiovascular risk factors has been associated with changes in surface electrocardiographic (ECG) parameters (e.g., prolongation of the PR interval) and higher risks of atrial fibrillation (AF). However, it has been difficult to establish whether altered ECG parameters are the cause or a consequence of the myocardial substrate leading to AF. This study aimed to examine the potential causal relevance of ECG parameters on risk of AF using mendelian randomisation (MR). METHODS AND FINDINGS: Weighted genetic scores explaining lifelong differences in P-wave duration, PR interval, and QT interval were constructed, and associations between these ECG scores and risk of AF were estimated among 278,792 UK Biobank participants (mean age: 57 years at recruitment; 19,132 AF cases). The independent genetic variants contributing to each of the separate ECG scores, and their corresponding weights, were based on published genome-wide association studies. In UK Biobank, genetic scores representing a 5 ms longer P-wave duration or PR interval were significantly associated with lower risks of AF (odds ratio [OR] 0.91; 95% confidence interval [CI]: 0.87-0.96, P = 2 × 10-4 and OR 0.94; 95% CI: 0.93-0.96, P = 2 × 10-19, respectively), while longer QT interval was not significantly associated with AF. These effects were independently replicated among a further 17,931 AF cases from the AFGen Consortium. Investigation of potential mechanistic pathways showed that differences in ECG parameters associated with specific ion channel genes had effects on risk of AF consistent with the overall scores, while the overall scores were not associated with changes in left atrial size. Limitations of the study included the inherent assumptions of MR, restriction to individuals of European ancestry, and possible restriction of results to the normal ECG ranges represented in UK Biobank. CONCLUSIONS: In UK Biobank, we observed evidence suggesting a causal relationship between lifelong differences in ECG parameters (particularly PR interval) that reflect longer atrial conduction times and a lower risk of AF. These findings, which appear to be independent of atrial size and concomitant cardiovascular comorbidity, support the relevance of varying mechanisms underpinning AF and indicate that more individualised treatment strategies warrant consideration.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS Med

Publication Date





Aged, Atrial Fibrillation, Electrocardiography, Female, Humans, Male, Mendelian Randomization Analysis, Middle Aged, Prevalence, Risk Assessment, United Kingdom