1.The Na+,K+-ATPase or Na+,K+-pump, mediating the active transport of Na+ and K+, which was first identified 40 years ago, is a central target for acute and long-term regulation, as well as for therapeutic intervention. Acute stimulation of the Na+,K+-pump in skeletal muscle by insulin, catecholamines, β2-agonists or theophylline increases the intracellular uptake of K+ and accounts for the hypokalaemia elicited by these agents. Conversely, digitalis intoxication elicits hyperkalaemia via acute inhibition of the Na+,K+-pump.

2.Simple and accurate methods have been developed for the quantification of the total concentration of Na+,K+-pumps in small (0.5–5 mg) fresh or frozen biopsies of human skeletal muscle, myocardium or other tissues. This has allowed the identification of several long-term regulatory changes in the concentration of this transport system in human tissues. In skeletal muscle, upregulation is induced by training, thyroid hormones or glucocorticoids. Downregulation is seen in hypothyroidism, cardiac insufficiency, myotonic dystrophy, McArdle disease, K+ deficiency and after muscle inactivity.

3.Since the skeletal muscles contain one of the major pools of Na+,K+-pumps, these changes are important for the ability to counterregulate the hyperkalaemia elicited by exercise or the ingestion of K+. Moreover, downregulation or inhibition of the Na+,K+-pumps in skeletal muscle interferes with contractile performance. Since digitalis glycosides bind to the Na+,K+-pump, the muscles constitute a large distribution volume for these agents and are therefore an important determinant for their plasma level.

4.In cardiac insufficiency, the decrease in the concentration of Na+,K+-pumps in the myocardium is over a wide range correlated to the concomitant reduction in ejection fraction. The regulatory and pathophysiological changes in the activity and concentration of Na+,K+-pumps are important for the contractile function of skeletal muscle and heart as well as for K+ homoeostasis and the response to digitalization.

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Author notes

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This review was submitted before the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Jens Christian Skou was announced; the wording of the first sentence of the Introduction therefore was revised to take account of this event.