The Mammalian Cardiac Cycle

Learning Objectives

  1. Diagram and trace the structure and function of the mammalian heart, including all four chambers, valves, major blood vessels, and nodes essential for electrical conduction pathways
  2. Explain the process of electrical activation of the cardiac cycle
  3. Describe mechanisms for controlling heart rate and cardiac output

The Mammalian Heart

The information below was adapted from OpenStax Biology 40.3

The heart is a complex muscle that pumps blood through the three divisions of the circulatory system: the coronary (vessels that serve the heart), pulmonary (heart and lungs), and systemic (systems of the body). Coronary circulation intrinsic to the heart takes blood directly from the main artery (aorta) coming from the heart. For pulmonary and systemic circulation, the heart has to pump blood to the lungs or the rest of the body, respectively. In vertebrates, the lungs are relatively close to the heart in the thoracic cavity. The shorter distance to pump means that the muscle wall on the right side of the heart is not as thick as the left side which must have enough pressure to pump blood all the way to your big toe.

Illustration shows blood circulation through the mammalian systemic and pulmonary circuits. Blood enters the left atrium, the upper left chamber of the heart, through veins of the systemic circuit. The major vein that feeds the heart from the upper body is the superior vena cava, and the major vein that feeds the heart from the lower body is the inferior vena cava. From the left atrium blood travels down to the left ventricle, then up to the pulmonary artery. From the pulmonary artery blood enters capillaries of the lung. Blood is then collected by the pulmonary vein, and re-enters the heart through the upper left chamber of the heart, the left atrium. Blood travels down to the left ventricle, then re-enters the systemic circuit through the aorta, which exits through the top of the heart. Blood enters tissues of the body through capillaries of the systemic circuit.

The mammalian circulatory system is divided into three circuits: the systemic circuit, the pulmonary circuit, and the coronary circuit. Blood is pumped from veins of the systemic circuit into the right atrium of the heart, then into the right ventricle. Blood then enters the pulmonary circuit, and is oxygenated by the lungs. From the pulmonary circuit, blood re-enters the heart through the left atrium. From the left ventricle, blood re-enters the systemic circuit through the aorta and is distributed to the rest of the body. The coronary circuit, which provides blood to the heart, is not shown.


Structure of the Heart

The heart muscle is asymmetrical as a result of the distance blood must travel in the pulmonary and systemic circuits. Since the right side of the heart sends blood to the pulmonary circuit it is smaller than the left side which must send blood out to the whole body in the systemic circuit. In humans, the heart is about the size of a clenched fist; it is divided into four chambers: two atria and two ventricles. There is one atrium and one ventricle on the right side and one atrium and one ventricle on the left side. The atria are the chambers that receive blood, and the ventricles are the chambers that pump blood. The right atrium receives deoxygenated blood from the superior vena cava, which drains blood from the jugular vein that comes from the brain and from the veins that come from the arms, as well as from the inferior vena cava which drains blood from the veins that come from the lower organs and the legs. In addition, the right atrium receives blood from the coronary sinus which drains deoxygenated blood from the heart itself. This deoxygenated blood then passes to the right ventricle through the atrioventricular valve or the tricuspid valve, a flap of connective tissue that opens in only one direction to prevent the backflow of blood. The valve separating the chambers on the left side of the heart valve is called the biscuspid or mitral valve. After it is filled, the right ventricle pumps the blood through the pulmonary arteries, by-passing the semilunar valve (or pulmonic valve) to the lungs for re-oxygenation. After blood passes through the pulmonary arteries, the right semilunar valves close preventing the blood from flowing backwards into the right ventricle. The left atrium then receives the oxygen-rich blood from the lungs via the pulmonary veins. This blood passes through the bicuspid valve or mitral valve (the atrioventricular valve on the left side of the heart) to the left ventricle where the blood is pumped out through aorta, the major artery of the body, taking oxygenated blood to the organs and muscles of the body. Once blood is pumped out of the left ventricle and into the aorta, the aortic semilunar valve (or aortic valve) closes preventing blood from flowing backward into the left ventricle. This pattern of pumping is referred to as double circulation and is found in all mammals.

Illustration A shows the parts of the heart. Blood enters the right atrium through an upper, superior vena cava and a lower, inferior vena cava. From the right atrium, blood flows through the funnel-shaped tricuspid valve into the right ventricle. Blood then travels up and through the pulmonary valve into the pulmonary artery. Blood re-enters the heart through the pulmonary veins, and travels down from the left atrium, through the mitral valve, into the right ventricle. Blood then travels up through the aortic valve, into the aorta. The tricuspid and mitral valves are atrioventricular and funnel-shaped. The pulmonary and aortic valves are semilunar and slightly curved. An inset shows a cross section of the heart. The myocardium is the thick muscle layer. The inside of the heart is protected by the endocardium, and the outside is protected by the pericardium. Illustration B shows the outside of the heart. Coronary arteries and coronary veins run from the top down along the right and left sides.

(a) The heart is primarily made of a thick muscle layer, called the myocardium, surrounded by membranes. One-way valves separate the four chambers. (b) Blood vessels of the coronary system, including the coronary arteries and veins, keep the heart musculature oxygenated.

The heart has its own blood vessels that supply the heart muscle with blood. The coronary arteries branch from the aorta and surround the outer surface of the heart like a crown. They diverge into capillaries where the heart muscle is supplied with oxygen before converging again into the coronary veins to take the deoxygenated blood back to the right atrium where the blood will be re-oxygenated through the pulmonary circuit. The heart muscle will die without a steady supply of blood. Atherosclerosis is the blockage of an artery by the buildup of fatty plaques. Because of the size (narrow) of the coronary arteries and their function in serving the heart itself, atherosclerosis can be deadly in these arteries. The slowdown of blood flow and subsequent oxygen deprivation that results from atherosclerosis causes severe pain, known as angina, and complete blockage of the arteries will cause myocardial infarction: the death of cardiac muscle tissue, commonly known as a heart attack.

This video describes the structure and function of the human heart:

The Cardiac Cycle

The main purpose of the heart is to pump blood through the body; it does so in a repeating sequence called the cardiac cycle. The cardiac cycle is the coordination of the filling and emptying of the heart of blood by electrical signals that cause the heart muscles to contract and relax. The human heart beats over 100,000 times per day. In each cardiac cycle, the heart contracts (systole), pushing out the blood and pumping it through the body; this is followed by a relaxation phase (diastole), where the heart fills with blood. The atria contract at the same time. Closing of the atrioventricular valves produces a monosyllabic “lup” sound (first heart sound). Following a brief delay, the ventricles contract at the same time forcing blood through the semilunar valves into the aorta and the artery transporting blood to the lungs (via the pulmonary artery). Closing of the semilunar valves produces a monosyllabic “dup” sound (second heart sound).

Illustration A shows cardiac diastole. The cardiac muscle is relaxed, and blood flows into the heart atria and into the ventricles. Illustration B shows atrial systole; the atria contract, pushing blood into the ventricles, which are relaxed. Illustration C shows atrial diastole; after the atria relax, the ventricles contract, pushing blood out of the heart.

During (a) cardiac diastole, the heart muscle is relaxed and blood flows into the heart. During (b) atrial systole, the atria contract, pushing blood into the ventricles. During (c) atrial diastole, the ventricles contract, forcing blood out of the heart.


The pumping of the heart is a function of the cardiac muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, that make up the heart muscle. Cardiomyocytes are distinctive muscle cells that are striated like skeletal muscle but pump rhythmically and involuntarily like smooth muscle; they are connected by intercalated disks exclusive to cardiac muscle. They are self-stimulated for a period of time and isolated cardiomyocytes will beat if given the correct balance of nutrients and electrolytes.

Micrograph shows cardiac muscle cells, which are oblong and have prominent striations.

Cardiomyocytes are striated muscle cells found in cardiac tissue. (credit: modification of work by Dr. S. Girod, Anton Becker; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)


The autonomous beating of cardiac muscle cells is regulated by the heart’s internal pacemaker that uses electrical signals to time the beating of the heart. The electrical signals and mechanical actions are intimately intertwined. The internal pacemaker starts at the sinoatrial (SA) node, which is located near the wall of the right atrium. Electrical charges spontaneously pulse from the SA node causing the two atria to contract in unison. The pulse reaches a second node, called the atrioventricular (AV) node, between the right atrium and right ventricle where it pauses for approximately 0.1 second before spreading to the walls of the ventricles. From the AV node, the electrical impulse enters the bundle of His, then to the left and right bundle branches extending through the interventricular septum. Finally, the Purkinje fibers conduct the impulse from the apex of the heart up the ventricular myocardium, and then the ventricles contract. This pause allows the atria to empty completely into the ventricles before the ventricles pump out the blood. The electrical impulses in the heart produce electrical currents that flow through the body and can be measured on the skin using electrodes. This information can be observed as an electrocardiogram (ECG)—a recording of the electrical impulses of the cardiac muscle.

 The sinoatrial node is located at the top of the right atrium, and the atrioventricular node is located between the right atrium and right ventricle. The heart beat begins with an electrical impulse at the sinoatrial node, which spreads throughout the walls of the atria, resulting in a bump in the ECG reading. The signal then coalesces at the atrioventricular node, causing the ECG reading to flat-line briefly. Next, the signal passes from the atrioventricular node to the Purkinje fibers, which travel from the atriovenricular node and down the middle of the heart, between the two ventricles, then ups the sides of the ventricles. As the signal passes down the Purkinje fibers the ECG reading falls. The signal then spreads throughout the ventricle walls, and the ventricles contract, resulting in a sharp spike in the ECG. The spike is followed by a flat-line, longer than the first then a bump.

The beating of the heart is regulated by an electrical impulse that causes the characteristic reading of an ECG. The signal is initiated at the sinoatrial valve. The signal then (a) spreads to the atria, causing them to contract. The signal is (b) delayed at the atrioventricular node before it is passed on to the (c) heart apex. The delay allows the atria to relax before the (d) ventricles contract. The final part of the ECG cycle prepares the heart for the next beat.


This video describes the cardiac cycle in the human heart:

 And this video relates the cardiac cycle to the ECG:

Blood flow through the capillary beds is regulated depending on the body’s needs and is directed by nerve and hormone signals. For example, after a large meal, most of the blood is diverted to the stomach by vasodilation of vessels of the digestive system and vasoconstriction of other vessels. During exercise, blood is diverted to the skeletal muscles through vasodilation while blood to the digestive system would be lessened through vasoconstriction. The blood entering some capillary beds is controlled by small muscles, called precapillary sphincters. If the sphincters are open, the blood will flow into the associated branches of the capillary blood. If all of the sphincters are closed, then the blood will flow directly from the arteriole to the venule through the thoroughfare channel. These muscles allow precise control when capillary beds receive blood flow. At any given moment only about 5-10% of our capillary beds actually have blood flowing through them.

Illustration A shows an artery branching off into an arteriole, which branches into a capillary bed. The start of each capillary has a sphincter regulating flow through it. The capillaries converge into a venule, which joins a vein. Part B shows a valve in a blood vessel. The valve is slightly curved such that flow in one direction pushes it open, while flow in the other direction pushes it closed.

(a) Precapillary sphincters are rings of smooth muscle that regulate the flow of blood through capillaries; they help control the location of blood flow to where it is needed. (b) Valves in the veins prevent blood from moving backward. (credit a: modification of work by NCI)


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