Excitation-contraction coupling in heart: new insights from Ca2+ sparks

Cell Calcium. 1996 Aug;20(2):129-40. doi: 10.1016/s0143-4160(96)90102-5.


Ca2+ sparks, the elementary units of sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) Ca2+ release in cardiac, smooth and skeletal muscle are localized (2-4 microns ) increases in intracellular Ca2+ concentration, [Ca2+]i, that last briefly (30-100 ms). These Ca2+ sparks arise from the openings of a single SR Ca2+ release channel (ryanodine receptor, RyR) or a few RyRs acting in concert. In heart muscle, Ca2+ sparks can occur spontaneously in quiescent cells at a low rate (100 s-1 per cell). Identical Ca2+ sparks are also triggered by depolarization because the voltage-gated sarcolemmal L-type Ca2+ channels (dihydropyridine receptors, DHPRs) locally increase [Ca2+]i and thereby activate the RyRs by Ca(2+)-induced Ca2+ release (CICR). The exquisite responsiveness of this process, reflected by the ability of even a single DHPR to activate a Ca2+ spark, is perhaps due to the large local increase in [Ca2+]i in the vicinity of the RyR that is a consequence of the close apposition of the DHPRs and the RyRs. In this review we examine our current understanding of cardiac excitation-contraction (EC) coupling in light of recent studies on the elementary Ca2+ release events or Ca2+ sparks. In addition, we further characterized Ca2+ spark properties in rat and mouse heart cells. Specifically we have determined that: (i) Ca2+ sparks occur at the junctions between the transverse-tubules and the SR in both species; (ii) Ca2+ sparks are asymmetric, being 18% longer in the longitudinal direction than in the transverse direction; and (iii) Ca2+ sparks individually do not produce measurable sarcomere shortening (< 1%). These results are discussed with respect to local activation of the RyRs, the stability of CICR, Ca2+ diffusion, and the theory of EC coupling.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Calcium / physiology*
  • Electrophysiology
  • Evoked Potentials
  • Heart / physiology*
  • Mice
  • Microscopy, Confocal
  • Myocardial Contraction*
  • Rats
  • Sarcoplasmic Reticulum / physiology
  • Spectrometry, Fluorescence


  • Calcium