Cardiac excitation involves the generation of action potential by individual cells and the subsequent conduction of the action potential from cell to cell through intercellular gap junctions. Excitation of the cellular membrane results in opening of the voltage-gated L-type calcium ion (Ca(2+)) channels, thereby allowing a small amount of Ca(2+) to enter the cell, which in turn triggers the release of a much greater amount of Ca(2+) from the sarcoplasmic reticulum, the intracellular Ca(2+) store, and gives rise to the systolic Ca(2+) transient and contraction. These processes are highly regulated by the autonomic nervous system, which ensures the acute and reliable contractile function of the heart and the short-term modulation of this function upon changes in heart rate or workload. It has recently become evident that discrete clusters of different ion channels and regulatory receptors are present in the sarcolemma, where they form an interacting network and work together as a part of a macro-molecular signalling complex which in turn allows the specificity, reliability and accuracy of the autonomic modulation of the excitation-contraction processes by a variety of neurohormonal pathways. Disruption in subcellular targeting of ion channels and associated signalling proteins may contribute to the pathophysiology of a variety of cardiac diseases, including heart failure and certain arrhythmias. Recent methodological advances have made it possible to routinely image the topography of live cardiomyocytes, allowing the study of clustering functional ion channels and receptors as well as their coupling within a specific microdomain. In this review we highlight the emerging understanding of the functionality of distinct subcellular microdomains in cardiac myocytes (e.g. T-tubules, lipid rafts/caveolae, costameres and intercalated discs) and their functional role in the accumulation and regulation of different subcellular populations of sodium, Ca(2+) and potassium ion channels and their contributions to cellular signalling and cardiac pathology.
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