Tetrandrine is a natural alkaloid classified as a calcium antagonist. However, its precise actions on Ca(2+)-currents in cardiac cells have not been fully characterized. In the present study, we have investigated the mechanism of action of tetrandrine on the Ca(2+)-currents of single bullfrog cardiac cells, using the patch-clamp technique. Tetrandrine slightly increased ICaL from negative holding potentials (-100 mV) at low concentrations (10 nM-1 microM) and inhibited it at higher concentrations. At depolarized holding potentials (-50 mV) only an enhanced inhibition was seen. Tetrandrine blockade of the L-type Ca(2+)-current (ICaL) was mostly tonic. This is similar to ICaL blockade by nifedipine but not by verapamil, the latter being mostly use-dependent. Use-dependent effects of tetrandrine and nifedipine were evident at high rates. Availability curves were shifted leftwards (10-12 mV) by tetrandrine (10 microM) and nifedipine (1 microM). The T-type Ca(2+)-current (ICaT), although less sensitive, was decreased by both agents in a voltage-independent way. Tetrandrine (10-30 microM) but not nifedipine (1-10 microM), depressed the Na(+)-current (INa) in tonic, use- and voltage-dependent manners. We conclude that tetrandrine and nifedipine share some common actions on cardiac Ca(2+)-channels, while showing differences in their actions on Na(+)-channels. The depression of INa by tetrandrine suggests it could be effective on supraventricular tachycardias.