Evidence that the activity of nitric oxide synthase and the generation of nitric oxide (NO) within the myocardium are enhanced in several cardiovascular disorders is increasing. Findings whether NO exerts a direct effect on cardiac contractility are contradictory. Therefore, the direct effect of the NO donor sodium nitroprusside (SNP) on isometric force of contraction of human atrial and ventricular myocardium was investigated, and the question was addressed whether the effects of NO on cardiac contractility are mediated via cGMP. Experiments were performed on isolated electrically driven (1 Hz, 37 degrees C) human right atrial trabecula and left ventricular papillary muscle preparations from nonfailing and terminally failing hearts. SNP led to a concentration-dependent decrease of force of contraction (FOC) with a maximum effect at 100 micromol/l. In atrial trabecula, SNP (100 micromol/l) caused an acute decrease in basal FOC as well as in FOC after application of isoprenaline or IBMX by 12.5 +/- 5% (P < .05), 16.6 +/- 3.7% (P < .05) and 18.3 +/- 4.2% (P < .05), respectively. The negative inotropic effects could be attenuated by the guanylyl cyclase inhibitor methylene blue. In papillary muscle preparations, NO release caused a maximum decrease in basal and in isoprenaline-enhanced FOC of 11.0 +/- 1.9% (P < .05) and 23.6 +/- 1.5% (P < .05), respectively. In the presence of isoprenaline, the reduction of FOC was less pronounced in failing than in nonfailing papillary muscles. 8-bromo-cGMP caused a 38.2 +/- 5.2% decrease in atrial trabecula contractility. Both SNP and 8-bromo-cGMP caused a shortening of the contractile twitch with a premature onset of relaxation. As determined by radioimmunoassay, exposure of atrial trabecula to SNP (100 micromol) led to a 6-fold increase in myocardial cGMP concentrations, which could be attenuated by methylene blue. In conclusion, NO exerts a negative inotropic effect on human atrial and ventricular myocardium which seems to be mediated via generation of cGMP. The release of NO within the myocardium in a variety of cardiovascular disorders might explain decreases in cardiac contractility. The control of NO release could be an important target for future therapeutical interventions in these pathological conditions.