From depolarization-dependent contractions in gastrointestinal smooth muscle to aortic pulse-synchronized contractions
For decades, it was believed that the diameter of gastrointestinal smooth muscle cells is sufficiently narrow, and that the diffusion of calcium across the plasma membrane is sufficient, to support contractile activity. Thus, depolarization-triggered release of intracellular calcium was not believed to be operative in gastrointestinal smooth muscle. However, after the incubation of muscle segments in solutions devoid of calcium and containing the calcium chelator ethylene glycol tetraacetic acid, an alternative electrical event occurred that was distinct from normal slow waves and spikes. Subsequently, it was demonstrated in gastrointestinal smooth muscle segments that membrane depolarization associated with this alternative electrical event triggered rhythmic contractions by release of intracellular calcium. Although this concept of depolarization-triggered calcium release was iconoclastic, it has now been demonstrated in multiple gastrointestinal smooth muscle preparations. On the basis of these observations, we investigated whether a rhythmic electrical and mechanical event would occur in aortic smooth muscle under the same calcium-free conditions. The incubation of aortic segments in a solution with no added calcium plus ethylene glycol tetraacetic acid induced a fast electrical event without corresponding tension changes. On the basis of the frequency of these fast electrical events, we pursued, contrary to what has been established dogma for more than three centuries, the question of whether the smooth muscle wall of the aorta undergoes rhythmic activation during the cardiac cycle. As with depolarization-triggered contractile activity in gastrointestinal smooth muscle, it was “well known” that rhythmic activation of the aorta does not occur in synchrony with the heartbeat. In a series of experiments, however, it was demonstrated that rhythmic contractions occur in the aortic wall in synchrony with the heartbeat and share a common pacemaker with the heart. We conclude that important observations in the vascular system became derivative from those in the gastrointestinal system. The challenging of scientific dogma potentially leads to the expansion of our fundamental knowledge base.