In the late19th century, Otto Frank found using isolated frog hearts that the strength of ventricular contraction was increased when the ventricle was stretched prior to contraction. This observation was extended by the elegant studies of Ernest Starling and colleagues in the early 20th century who found that increasing venous return, and therefore the filling pressure of the ventricle, led to increased stroke volume in dogs. These cardiac responses, which occur in isolated hearts as well as in intact animals and humans, are independent of neural and humoral influences on the heart. In honor of these two early pioneers, the ability of the heart to change its force of contraction and therefore stroke volume in response to changes in venous return is called the Frank-Starling mechanism (or Starling's Law of the heart).
Increased venous return increases the ventricular filling (end-diastolic volume) and therefore preload, which is the initial stretching of the cardiac myocytes prior to contraction. Myocyte stretching increases the sarcomere length, which causes an increase in force generation. This mechanism enables the heart to eject the additional venous return, thereby increasing stroke volume.
This phenomenon is described in mechanical terms by the length-tension and force-velocity relationships for cardiac muscle. Increasing preload increases the active tension developed by the muscle fiber and increases the velocity of fiber shortening at a given afterload and inotropic state.
One mechanism to explain how preload influences contractile force is that increasing the sarcomere length increases troponin C calcium sensitivity, which increases the rate of cross-bridge attachment and detachment, and the amount of tension developed by the muscle fiber (see Excitation-Contraction Coupling). The effect of increased sarcomere length on the contractile proteins is termed length-dependent activation.
It has traditionally been taught that the Frank-Starling mechanism is due to changes in the number of overlapping actin and myosin units within the sarcomere as in skeletal muscle. According to this view, changes in the force of contraction do not result from a change in inotropy. Because we now know that changes in preload are associated with altered calcium handling and troponin C affinity for calcium, a sharp distinction cannot be made mechanistically between length-dependent (Frank-Starling mechanism) and length-independent changes (inotropic mechanisms) in contractile function.
There is no single Frank-Starling curve on which the ventricle operates. There is actually a family of curves, each of which is defined by the afterload and inotropic state of the heart (Figure 2). For example, increasing afterload or decreasing inotropy shifts the curve down and to the right. Decreasing afterload and increasing inotropy shifts the curve up and to the left. To summarize, changes in venous return cause the ventricle to move along a single Frank-Starling curve that is defined by the existing conditions of afterload and inotropy.