To define the mechanism(s) responsible for the negative inotropic effects of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF alpha) in the adult heart, we examined the functional effects of TNF alpha in the intact left ventricle and the isolated adult cardiac myocyte. Studies in both the ventricle and the isolated adult cardiac myocyte showed that TNF alpha exerted a concentration- and time-dependent negative inotropic effect that was fully reversible upon removal of this cytokine. Further, treatment with a neutralizing anti-TNF alpha antibody prevented the negative inotropic effects of TNF alpha in isolated myocytes. A cellular basis for the above findings was provided by studies which showed that treatment with TNF alpha resulted in decreased levels of peak intracellular calcium during the systolic contraction sequence; moreover, these findings did not appear to be secondary to alterations in the electrophysiological properties of the cardiac myocyte. Further studies showed that increased levels of nitric oxide, de novo protein synthesis, and metabolites of the arachidonic acid pathway were unlikely to be responsible for the TNF alpha-induced abnormalities in contractile function. Thus, these studies constitute the initial demonstration that the negative inotropic effects of TNF alpha are the direct result of alterations in intracellular calcium homeostasis in the adult cardiac myocyte.