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After studying this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Describe the structure and function of the conduction system of the heart and compare the action potentials in each part.

  • Describe the way the electrocardiogram (ECG) is recorded, the waves of the ECG, and the relationship of the ECG to the electrical axis of the heart.


The parts of the heart normally beat in orderly sequence: Contraction of the atria (atrial systole) is followed by contraction of the ventricles (ventricular systole), and during diastole all four chambers are relaxed. The heartbeat originates in a specialized cardiac conduction system and spreads via this system to all parts of the myocardium. The structures that make up the conduction system are the sinoatrial node (SA node), the internodal atrial pathways, the atrioventricular node (AV node), the bundle of His and its branches, and the Purkinje system. The SA node normally discharges most rapidly, with depolarization spreading from it to the other regions before they discharge spontaneously. The SA node is therefore the normal cardiac pacemaker, with its rate of discharge determining the rate at which the heart beats. Impulses generated in the SA node pass through the atrial pathways to the AV node, through this node to the bundle of His, and through the branches of the bundle of His via the Purkinje system to the ventricular muscle. Each of the cell types in the heart contains a unique electrical discharge pattern; the sum of these electrical discharges can be recorded as the electrocardiogram (ECG).



In the human heart, the SA node is located at the junction of the superior vena cava with the right atrium. The AV node is located in the right posterior portion of the interatrial septum (Figure 29–1). There are three bundles of atrial fibers that contain Purkinje-type fibers and connect the SA node to the AV node: the anterior, middle (tract of Wenckebach), and posterior (tract of Thorel) tracts. Bachmann bundle is sometimes used to identify a branch of the anterior internodal tract that connects the right and left atria. Conduction also occurs through atrial myocytes, but it is more rapid in these bundles. The AV node is continuous with the bundle of His, which gives off a left bundle branch at the top of the interventricular septum and continues as the right bundle branch. The left bundle branch divides into an anterior fascicle and a posterior fascicle. The branches and fascicles run subendocardially down either side of the septum and come into contact with the Purkinje system, whose fibers spread to all parts of the ventricular myocardium.


Conducting system of the heart. Left: Anatomic depiction of the human heart with additional focus on areas of the conduction system. Right: Typical transmembrane ...

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