The mechanisms underlying the cardiac activities of synthetic growth hormone secretagogues (GHS) are still unclear. The natural ligand of the GHS receptors, i.e. ghrelin, classically binds the GHS receptor and exerts endocrine actions in acylated forms only; its cardiovascular actions still need to be investigated further. In order to clarify these aspects, we studied the effects of either the synthetic peptidyl GHS hexarelin (1 microM), or the natural ghrelin (50 nM) and the endogenous ghrelin derivatives des-Gln14-ghrelin (1-100 nM) and des-octanoyl ghrelin (50 nM), on the tension developed by guinea pig papillary muscle and on L-type Ca2+ current (ICa) of isolated ventricular cells. The binding of these molecules to ventricular cell membrane homogenates was also studied. We observed that all peptides reduced the tension developed at low frequencies (60-120 beats/min) in a dose-dependent manner. No alteration in cardiac contractility was induced by des-Gln14-ghrelin or des-octanoylated ghrelin when the endocardial endothelium had been removed or after cyclooxygenase blockade. Pretreatment with tyramine (2 microM) had no effect on the inotropic response induced by des-Gln(14)-ghrelin. No significant effect on I(Ca) of isolated ventricular cells was observed in the presence of des-Gln14-ghrelin (100 nM). The order of potency on the tension of papillary muscle was: des-octanoyl ghrelin > ghrelin = des-Gln14-ghrelin > hexarelin. This gradient of potency was consistent with the binding experiments performed on ventricular membranes where either acylated or unacylated ghrelin forms, and hexarelin, recognized a common high-affinity binding site. In conclusion, ghrelin, des-Gln14-ghrelin and des-octanoyl ghrelin, show similar negative inotropic effect on papillary muscle; as des-octanoyl ghrelin is peculiarly devoid of any GH-releasing activity, the cardiotropic action of these molecules is independent of GH release. The binding studies and the experiments performed both on the isolated cells and on papillary muscle after endothelium removal or cyclooxygenase blockade indicate that the cardiotropic action of natural and synthetic ghrelin analogues reflects the interaction with a novel GHS receptor (peculiarly common for ghrelin and des-octanoyl ghrelin), leading to release of cyclooxygenase metabolites from endothelial cells, as indicated by direct measurement of prostacyclin metabolite 6-keto-PGF(1alpha).