Cellular and Molecular Mechanisms of Functional Hierarchy of Pacemaker Clusters in the Sinoatrial Node: New Insights into Sick Sinus Syndrome

J Cardiovasc Dev Dis. 2021 Apr 13;8(4):43. doi: 10.3390/jcdd8040043.


The sinoatrial node (SAN), the primary pacemaker of the heart, consists of a heterogeneous population of specialized cardiac myocytes that can spontaneously produce action potentials, generating the rhythm of the heart and coordinating heart contractions. Spontaneous beating can be observed from very early embryonic stage and under a series of genetic programing, the complex heterogeneous SAN cells are formed with specific biomarker proteins and generate robust automaticity. The SAN is capable to adjust its pacemaking rate in response to environmental and autonomic changes to regulate the heart's performance and maintain physiological needs of the body. Importantly, the origin of the action potential in the SAN is not static, but rather dynamically changes according to the prevailing conditions. Changes in the heart rate are associated with a shift of the leading pacemaker location within the SAN and accompanied by alterations in P wave morphology and PQ interval on ECG. Pacemaker shift occurs in response to different interventions: neurohormonal modulation, cardiac glycosides, pharmacological agents, mechanical stretch, a change in temperature, and a change in extracellular electrolyte concentrations. It was linked with the presence of distinct anatomically and functionally defined intranodal pacemaker clusters that are responsible for the generation of the heart rhythm at different rates. Recent studies indicate that on the cellular level, different pacemaker clusters rely on a complex interplay between the calcium (referred to local subsarcolemmal Ca2+ releases generated by the sarcoplasmic reticulum via ryanodine receptors) and voltage (referred to sarcolemmal electrogenic proteins) components of so-called "coupled clock pacemaker system" that is used to describe a complex mechanism of SAN pacemaking. In this review, we examine the structural, functional, and molecular evidence for hierarchical pacemaker clustering within the SAN. We also demonstrate the unique molecular signatures of intranodal pacemaker clusters, highlighting their importance for physiological rhythm regulation as well as their role in the development of SAN dysfunction, also known as sick sinus syndrome.

Keywords: calcium; ion channel; pacemaker cluster; pacemaker shift; sick sinus syndrome; sinoatrial node.

Publication types

  • Review