Reduction of the transsarcolemmal [Na] gradient in rabbit cardiac muscle leads to an increase in the force of contraction. This has frequently been attributed to alteration of Ca movements via the sarcolemmal Na/Ca exchange system. However, the specific mechanisms that mediate the increased force at individual contractions have not been clearly established. In the present study, the [Na] gradient was decreased by reduction of extracellular [Na] or inhibition of the Na pump by either the cardioactive steroid acetylstrophanthidin or by reduction of extracellular [K]. Contractile performance and changes in extracellular Ca (sensed by double-barreled Ca-selective microelectrodes) were studied in order to elucidate the underlying basis for the increase in force. In the presence of agents that inhibit sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) function (10 mM caffeine, 100-500 nM ryanodine), reduction of the [Na] gradient produced increases in contractile force similar to that observed in the absence of caffeine or ryanodine. It is concluded that an intact, functioning SR is not required for the inotropic effect of [Na] gradient reduction (at least in rabbit ventricle). However, this does not exclude a possible contribution of enhanced SR Ca release in the inotropic response to [Na] gradient reduction in the absence of caffeine or ryanodine. Acetylstrophanthidin (3-5 microM) usually leads to an increase in the magnitude of extracellular Ca depletions associated with individual contractions. However, acetylstrophanthidin can also increase extracellular Ca accumulation during the contraction, especially at potentiated contractions. This extracellular Ca accumulation can be suppressed by ryanodine and it is suggested that this apparent enhancement of Ca efflux is secondary to an enhanced release of Ca from the SR. Under conditions where Ca efflux during contractions is minimized (after a rest interval in the presence of ryanodine), acetylstrophanthidin increased both the rate and the extent of extracellular Ca depletions. Thus, acetylstrophanthidin can increase both Ca influx and Ca efflux during the cardiac muscle contraction. These results can be explained by a simple model where the direction of net Ca flux via Na/Ca exchange during the action potential is determined by the changes in reversal potential of the Na/Ca exchange. Reduction of the [Na] gradient may well lead to net cellular Ca uptake (via Na/Ca exchange) and may also elevate the resting intracellular [Ca].(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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