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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Describe the structure of cardiac muscle
  • Identify and describe the components of the conducting system that distributes electrical impulses through the heart
  • Compare the effect of ion movement on membrane potential of cardiac conductive and contractile cells
  • Relate characteristics of an electrocardiogram to events in the cardiac cycle
  • Identify blocks that can interrupt the cardiac cycle

Recall that cardiac muscle shares a few characteristics with both skeletal muscle and smooth muscle, but it has some unique properties of its own. Not the least of these exceptional properties is its ability to initiate an electrical potential at a fixed rate that spreads rapidly from cell to cell to trigger the contractile mechanism. This property is known as autorhythmicity    . Neither smooth nor skeletal muscle can do this. Even though cardiac muscle has autorhythmicity, heart rate is modulated by the endocrine and nervous systems.

There are two major types of cardiac muscle cells: myocardial contractile cells and myocardial conducting cells. The myocardial contractile cells    constitute the bulk (99 percent) of the cells in the atria and ventricles. Contractile cells conduct impulses and are responsible for contractions that pump blood through the body. The myocardial conducting cells    (1 percent of the cells) form the conduction system of the heart. Except for Purkinje cells, they are generally much smaller than the contractile cells and have few of the myofibrils or filaments needed for contraction. Their function is similar in many respects to neurons, although they are specialized muscle cells. Myocardial conduction cells initiate and propagate the action potential (the electrical impulse) that travels throughout the heart and triggers the contractions that propel the blood.

Structure of cardiac muscle

Compared to the giant cylinders of skeletal muscle, cardiac muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, are considerably shorter with much smaller diameters. Cardiac muscle also demonstrates striations, the alternating pattern of dark A bands and light I bands attributed to the precise arrangement of the myofilaments and fibrils that are organized in sarcomeres along the length of the cell ( [link] a ). These contractile elements are virtually identical to skeletal muscle. T (transverse) tubules penetrate from the surface plasma membrane, the sarcolemma, to the interior of the cell, allowing the electrical impulse to reach the interior. The T tubules are only found at the Z discs, whereas in skeletal muscle, they are found at the junction of the A and I bands. Therefore, there are one-half as many T tubules in cardiac muscle as in skeletal muscle. In addition, the sarcoplasmic reticulum stores few calcium ions, so most of the calcium ions must come from outside the cells. The result is a slower onset of contraction. Mitochondria are plentiful, providing energy for the contractions of the heart. Typically, cardiomyocytes have a single, central nucleus, but two or more nuclei may be found in some cells.

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