Press release

Cardiac cells like rocks: a new approach for studying cardiac electrical properties


A representation of the dense membrane network inside a cardiac cell
A representation of the dense membrane network inside a cardiac cell

Researchers led by Dr. Leonardo Sacconi of the Cnr - National Institute of Optics have measured the electrical properties of cardiac cells exploiting an ingenious analogy between the transport of charges and the transport of matter. The work published on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), has drawn inspiration from a geological article published in 1951, in which the diffusive properties of porous rocks were extracted from their electrical properties.

Cardiac cells are characterized by a dense network of invaginations responsible for the propagation of the electrical signals. Picturing cardiac cells as a porous rock, the researchers have obtained information on electrical propagation of cardiac cells from the diffusion properties investigated using an advance imaging technique called FRAP (Fluorescent Recovery After Photobleaching). “Fluorescent molecules within the dense network of invaginations have been first switched off using a high power laser and then the diffusion of new fluorescent molecules has been monitored. By designing a tailored mathematical model, the diffusion of fluorescent molecules within the cell has been then correlated with the electrical conductivity and used to calculate the efficiency of cardiac electrical propagation”, explains Marina Scardigli, first author of the article.

“It has been a team work. The study has involved numerous competences from optics, mathematics, physics, geology, physiology, and even medicine. It has been possible thanks to an international collaborative network involving the National Institute of Optics, The European Laboratory for Non-Linear Spectroscopy, the University of Florence, and the University of Freiburg in Breisgau”, adds Sacconi.

Besides introducing a novel investigative method, the work has measured the electrical properties within cardiac cells for the first time. With this approach, it has been possible to identify anomalies of electrical conduction in disease settings such as the overt heart failure.

Electrical abnormalities may produce cardiac mechanical dysfunction eventually increasing the risk of arrhythmias. Deep understanding of the basic mechanism underlying cardiac arrhythmias will encourage new perspectives towards effective and targeted therapeutics strategies against this potentially lethal disease.

For further information: Leonardo Sacconi, Ino-Cnr, ph. +39 055/457 2451, e-mail:; Pietro Cataleta, ph. 06/49933383, e-mail: