Pacemaker oscillations in heart and brain: a key role for hyperpolarization-activated cation channels

Chronobiol Int. 2000 Jul;17(4):453-69. doi: 10.1081/cbi-100101057.


Rhythmic activity of single cells or multicellular networks is a common feature of all organisms. The oscillatory activity is characterized by time intervals of several seconds up to many hours. Cellular rhythms govern the beating of the heart, the swimming behavior of sperm, cycles of sleep and wakefulness, breathing, and the release of hormones. Many neurons in the brain and cardiac cells are characterized by endogenous rhythmic activity, which relies on a complex interplay between several distinct ion channels. In particular, one type of ion channel plays a prominent role in the control of rhythmic electrical activity since it determines the frequency of the oscillations. The activity of the channels is thus setting the "pace" of the oscillations; therefore, these channels are often referred to as "pacemaker" channels. Despite their obvious important physiological function, it was not until recently that genes encoding pacemaker channels have been identified. Because both hyperpolarization and cyclic nucleotides are key elements that control their activity, pacemaker channels have now been designated hyperpolarization-activated and cyclic nucleotide-gated (HCN) channels. The molecular identification of the channels and the upcoming studies on their properties in heterologous systems will certainly enhance our understanding of "pacemaking" in physiological systems. This review gives a brief insight into the physiological importance of these channels and sums up what we have learned since the first cloning of genes succeeded (for recent reviews, see also Clapham 1998; Luthi and McCormick 1998a; Biel et al. 1999; Ludwig, Zong, Hofmann, et al. 1999; Santoro and Tibbs 1999).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Heart Conduction System / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Invertebrates / genetics
  • Invertebrates / metabolism
  • Ion Channels / chemistry
  • Ion Channels / genetics
  • Ion Channels / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Membrane Potentials
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Myocardium / metabolism*
  • Periodicity*
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid
  • Thalamus / metabolism
  • Vertebrates / genetics
  • Vertebrates / metabolism


  • Ion Channels