Mechanoelectrical feedback, defined as changes in mechanical state that precede and alter transmembrane potential, may have potential importance in understanding the role of altered load and contractility in the initiation and modulation of ventricular arrhythmias. To assess the independent effects of preload and contractility on myocardial excitability and action potential duration, we determined the stimulus strength-interval relationship and recorded monophasic action potentials in isolated canine left ventricles contracting isovolumically. The strength-interval relationship was characterized by three parameters: threshold excitability, relative refractory period, and absolute refractory period. The effects of a threefold increase in left ventricular volume or twofold increase in contractility on these parameters were independently assessed. An increase in preload did not change threshold excitability in 11 ventricles but significantly shortened the absolute refractory period from 205 +/- 15 to 191 +/- 14 ms (P less than 0.001) (mean +/- SD). Similarly, the relative refractory period decreased from 220 +/- 18 to 208 +/- 19 ms (P less than 0.002). Comparable results were observed when contractility was increased as a result of dobutamine infusion in 10 ventricles. That is, threshold excitability was unchanged but the absolute refractory period decreased from 206 +/- 14 to 181 +/- 9 ms (P less than 0.003), and the relative refractory period decreased from 225 +/- 17 to 205 +/- 18 ms (P less than 0.003). Similar results were obtained when contractility was increased with CaCl2, indicating that contractility associated changes were independent of beta-adrenergic receptor stimulation. An increase in preload or contractility was associated with shortening of the action potential. A threefold increase in preload and twofold increase in contractility were associated with a decrease in action potential duration of 22 and 24 ms, respectively. There was a significant linear correlation between action potential duration and excitability (absolute refractory period). The similar effects of increased preload and contractility on threshold excitability and refractoriness can be explained by the action these perturbations have on the time course of repolarization. Therefore, excitability of the ventricle is sensitive to and is modulated by alteration of load or inotropic state. The similar effects of either increased preload or contractility on excitability may be mediated by a common cellular mechanism which results in a rise in intracellular free Ca2+ and secondary abbreviation of the action potential.