RATIONALE: Persistent atrial fibrillation (AF) has been associated with structural and electric remodeling and reduced contractile function. Objective: To unravel mechanisms underlying reduced sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) Ca(2+) release in persistent AF. METHODS: We studied cell shortening, membrane currents, and [Ca(2+)](i) in right atrial myocytes isolated from sheep with persistent AF (duration 129+/-39 days, N=16), compared to matched control animals (N=21). T-tubule density, ryanodine receptor (RyR) distribution, and local [Ca(2+)](i) transients were examined in confocal imaging. RESULTS: Myocyte shortening and underlying [Ca(2+)](i) transients were profoundly reduced in AF (by 54.8% and 62%, P<0.01). This reduced cell shortening could be corrected by increasing [Ca(2+)](i). SR Ca(2+) content was not different. Calculated fractional SR Ca(2+) release was reduced in AF (by 20.6%, P<0.05). Peak Ca(2+) current density was modestly decreased (by 23.9%, P<0.01). T-tubules were present in the control atrial myocytes at low density and strongly reduced in AF (by 45%, P<0.01), whereas the regular distribution of RyR was unchanged. Synchrony of SR Ca(2+) release in AF was significantly reduced with increased areas of delayed Ca(2+) release. Propagation between RyR was unaffected but Ca(2+) release at subsarcolemmal sites was reduced. Rate of Ca(2+) extrusion by Na(+)/Ca(2+) exchanger was increased. CONCLUSIONS: In persistent AF, reduced SR Ca(2+) release despite preserved SR Ca(2+) content is a major factor in contractile dysfunction. Fewer Ca(2+) channel-RyR couplings and reduced efficiency of the coupling at subsarcolemmal sites, possibly related to increased Na(+)/Ca(2+) exchanger, underlie the reduction in Ca(2+) release.