The sinoatrial node, a heterogeneous pacemaker structure
This article focuses on the regional heterogeneity of the mammalian sinoatrial (SA) node in terms of cell morphology, pacemaker activity, action potential configuration and conduction, densities of ionic currents (iNa, iCa,L, ito, iK,r, iK,s and if), expression of gap junction proteins (Cx40, Cx43 and Cx45), autonomic regulation, and ageing. Experimental studies on the single SA node cell to the whole animal are reviewed. The heterogeneity is considered in terms of the gradient model of the SA node, in which there is gradual change in the intrinsic properties of SA node cells from periphery to centre, and the alternative mosaic model, in which there is a variable mix of atrial and SA node cells from periphery to centre. The heterogeneity is important for the dependable functioning of the SA node as the pacemaker for the heart, because (i) via multiple mechanisms, it allows the SA node to drive the surrounding atrial muscle without being suppressed electrotonically; (ii) via an action potential duration gradient and a conduction block zone, it promotes antegrade propagation of excitation from the SA node to the right atrium and prevents reentry of excitation; and (iii) via pacemaker shift, it allows pacemaking to continue under diverse pathophysiological circumstances.