OBJECTIVE: To determine the effect of changes in autonomic tone induced by phenylephrine infusion on atrial refractoriness and conduction. DESIGN: Left and right atrial electrophysiological properties were measured before and after a constant phenylephrine infusion designed to increase sinus cycle length by 25%. SUBJECTS: 20 patients, aged 53 (SD 6) years, undergoing electrophysiological study for investigation of idiopathic paroxysmal atrial fibrillation (seven patients) or for routine follow up after successful catheter ablation of supraventricular tachycardia (13 patients). MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Changes in left and right atrial effective refractory periods, atrial activation times, and frequency of induction of atrial fibrillation. RESULTS: Phenylephrine (mean dose 69 (SD 18) mg/min) increased mean blood pressure by 22 (12) mm Hg (range 7 to 44) and lengthened sinus cycle length by 223 (94) ms (20 to 430). Left atrial effective refractory period lengthened following phenylephrine infusion from 250 (25) to 264 (21) ms (P < 0.001) but there was no significant change in right atrial effective refractory period: 200 (20) v 206 (29), P = 0.11. There was a significant relation between the effect of phenylephrine on sinus cycle length and on right atrial refractoriness (r = 0.6, P = 0.005) with shortening of right atrial refractoriness in patients with the greatest prolongation in sinus cycle length. During phenylephrine infusion, the right atrial stimulus to left atrial activation time at the basic pacing cycle length of 600 ms was unchanged, at 130 (18) v 131 (17) ms, but activation delay with a premature extrastimulus increased: 212 (28) v 227 (38) ms, P = 0.002. Atrial fibrillation was induced by two of 58 refractory period measurements at baseline and by 12 of 61 measurements during phenylephrine infusion (P < 0.01). Phenylephrine increased the difference between left and right atrial refractory periods by 22.8 (19.4) ms in the five patients with induced atrial fibrillation after phenylephrine compared to 0.9 (16.2) ms in the 13 patients without induced atrial fibrillation after phenylephrine infusion (P = 0.02). CONCLUSIONS: Phenylephrine infusion increased left atrial refractoriness and intra-atrial conduction delay following a premature right atrial extrastimulus. Induction of atrial fibrillation during phenylephrine infusion was associated with non-uniform changes in atrial refractoriness. These data support the concept that changes in autonomic tone may precipitate atrial fibrillation in susceptible individuals.