An isolated rabbit heart preparation was used to characterize the effects of hypothermia on the deterioration in mitochondrial respiratory function and on the calcium overload that occurs during ischemia and reperfusion. Hearts were perfused aerobically with an asanguineous solution for 120 minutes or made totally ischemic for 90 minutes at 37 degrees, 34 degrees, 28 degrees, 22 degrees C, respectively, and reperfused for 30 minutes at 37 degrees C. Mitochondrial function was assessed by measuring calcium content, yield, oxygen consumption, and adenosine triphosphate-producing capacities. In addition, the mechanical function of the hearts was measured together with tissue adenosine triphosphate, creatine phosphate, and calcium content. In a separate series of experiments, the effect of temperature on the initial rate of respiration-supported calcium accumulation of mitochondria from freshly excised, nonperfused rabbit hearts was determined. The hearts made ischemic at 37 degrees C were severely depleted of tissue adenosine triphosphate and creatine phosphate. Their mitochondria accumulated calcium and the oxidative phosphorylating activity was impaired. During reperfusion, tissue and mitochondrial calcium levels were substantially increased, state 3 of mitochondrial respiration was further impaired, and the adenosine triphosphate-generating capacities were severely reduced. Diastolic pressure increased and there was no recovery of developed pressure. Isolated mitochondrial function of hearts made ischemic at 28 degrees and 22 degrees C was protected. There was a less marked increase in tissue and mitochondrial calcium, and the initial rate and total production of adenosine triphosphate were maintained. In these hearts there was an almost complete recovery of mechanical performance at reperfusion, whereas the ischemia-induced depletion of tissue adenosine triphosphate and creatine phosphate was not significantly reduced by hypothermia. The hearts made ischemic at 34 degrees C were only partially protected. These data suggest that a decrease in temperature from 37 degrees to 22 degrees C during ischemia did not significantly prevent depletion of adenosine triphosphate at the end of ischemia but reduced tissue and mitochondrial calcium overload, maintaining mitochondrial function. Thus in our experiments the protective effect of hypothermia might be related to a direct reduction of tissue and mitochondrial calcium accumulation rather than to a slowing in rates of energy utilization. This possibility is supported by the finding that in freshly excised, nonperfused rabbit hearts, hypothermia significantly reduced the initial rate of mitochondrial calcium transport
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