The mechanisms underlying the development of ventricular fibrillation (VF) during early myocardial ischemia were assessed by use of a computerized three-dimensional mapping system capable of recording simultaneously from 232 intramural recording sites throughout the entire feline heart in vivo. Occlusion of the proximal left anterior descending coronary artery led to ventricular tachycardia (VT), which degenerated to VF in 1-5 minutes in four of 15 animals. Normal sinus beats immediately preceding the initiation of VT leading to VF demonstrated delayed activation (total activation time 133±14 msec), which was not significantly different from the activation time for normal sinus beats immediately preceding nonsustained VT (149±7 msec). Most of the conduction delay occurred in the subendocardial and midmyocardial regions in both groups. Initiation of VT leading to VF occurred by intramural reentry in three of the four cases. In one case, a mechanism responsible for the initiation of VT could not be assigned. The coupling interval of the initiating beats of VT ultimately leading to VF (210±15 msec) did not differ from that of nonsustained VT. Maintenance of the VT that led to VF was due primarily to intramural reentry (84% of cases) involving multiple activation sites in and around the border region of the ischemic zone. Nonreentrant mechanisms, arising in the subendocardium and subepicardium, also contributed to the maintenance of VT before development of VT. The transition from VT to VF was due exclusively to intramural reentry with initiation of the reentrant beats in the subendocardium and, occasionally, the subepicardium. Acceleration of the tachycardia by intramural reentry, along with very rapid and inhomogeneous recovery of excitability (as low as 50-60 msec), led to increased functional block and conduction delay. As a result, the total activation time for a given beat exceeded the coupling interval for that beat and led to the multiple reentrant circuits and multiple simultaneous activations characteristic of VF. Thus, the initiation and maintenance of VT leading to VF during early ischemia is due to intramural reentry, although nonreentrant mechanisms also contribute. However, the development of VF is due to continued intramural reentry and rapid recovery of excitability.