The generation of cardiac pacemaker activity is a complex phenomenon which requires the coordinated activity of different membrane ionic channels, as well as intracellular signalling factors including Ca2+ and second messengers. The precise mechanism initiating automaticity in primary pacemaker cells is still matter of debate and certain aspects of how channels cooperate in the regulation of pacemaking by the autonomic nervous system have not been entirely elucidated. Research in the physiopathology of cardiac automaticity has also gained a considerable interest in the domain of cardiovascular pharmacology, since accumulating clinical and epidemiological evidence indicate a link between an increase in heart rate and the risk of cardiac mortality and morbidity. Lowering the heart rate by specific bradycardic agents in patients with heart disease constitutes a promising way to increase cardioprotection and improve survival. Thus, the elucidation of the mechanisms underlying the generation of pacemaker activity is necessary for the development of new therapeutic molecules for controlling the heart rate. Recent work on genetically modified mouse models provided new and intriguing evidence linking the activity of ionic channels genes to the generation and regulation of pacemaking. Importantly, results obtained on genetically engineered mouse strains have demonstrated that some channels are specifically involved in the generation of cardiac automaticity and conduction, but have no functional impact on the contractile activity of the heart. In this article, we will outline the current knowledge on the role of ionic channels in cardiac pacemaker activity and suggest new potential pharmacological targets for controlling the heart rate without concomitant negative inotropism.
Keywords: Pacemaker activity, sinus node, Ionic channels, Ca2+ channels, HCN channels, K+ channels, channels expression pattern, genetically-modified mice, cardioprotection
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