Each heartbeat is initiated by cyclic spontaneous depolarization of cardiomyocytes in the sinus node forming the primary natural pacemaker. In patients with end-stage renal disease undergoing hemodialysis, it was recently shown that the heart rate drops to very low values before they suffer from sudden cardiac death with an unexplained high incidence. We hypothesize that the electrolyte changes commonly occurring in these patients affect sinus node beating rate and could be responsible for severe bradycardia. To test this hypothesis, we extended the Fabbri et al. computational model of human sinus node cells to account for the dynamic intracellular balance of ion concentrations. Using this model, we systematically tested the effect of altered extracellular potassium, calcium, and sodium concentrations. Although sodium changes had negligible (0.15 bpm/mM) and potassium changes mild effects (8 bpm/mM), calcium changes markedly affected the beating rate (46 bpm/mM ionized calcium without autonomic control). This pronounced bradycardic effect of hypocalcemia was mediated primarily by ICaL attenuation due to reduced driving force, particularly during late depolarization. This, in turn, caused secondary reduction of calcium concentration in the intracellular compartments and subsequent attenuation of inward INaCa and reduction of intracellular sodium. Our in silico findings are complemented and substantiated by an empirical database study comprising 22,501 pairs of blood samples and in vivo heart rate measurements in hemodialysis patients and healthy individuals. A reduction of extracellular calcium was correlated with a decrease of heartrate by 9.9 bpm/mM total serum calcium (p < 0.001) with intact autonomic control in the cross-sectional population. In conclusion, we present mechanistic in silico and empirical in vivo data supporting the so far neglected but experimentally testable and potentially important mechanism of hypocalcemia-induced bradycardia and asystole, potentially responsible for the highly increased and so far unexplained risk of sudden cardiac death in the hemodialysis patient population.
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