Sodium-calcium exchange current was isolated in inside-out patches excised from guinea pig ventricular cells using the giant patch method. The outward exchange current decayed exponentially upon activation by cytoplasmic sodium (sodium-dependent inactivation). The kinetics and mechanism of the inactivation were studied. (a) The rate of inactivation and the peak current amplitude were both strongly temperature dependent (Q10 = 2.2). (b) An increase in cytoplasmic pH from 6.8 to 7.8 attenuated the current decay and shifted the apparent dissociation constant (Kd) of cytoplasmic calcium for secondary activation of the exchange current from 9.6 microM to < 0.3 microM. (c) The amplitude of exchange current decreased synchronously over the membrane potential range from -120 to 60 mV during the inactivation, indicating that voltage dependence of the exchanger did not change during the inactivation process. The voltage dependence of exchange current also did not change during secondary modulation by cytoplasmic calcium and activation by chymotrypsin. (d) In the presence of 150 mM extracellular sodium and 2 mM extracellular calcium, outward exchange current decayed similarly upon application of cytoplasmic sodium. Upon removal of cytoplasmic sodium in the presence of 2-5 microM cytoplasmic free calcium, the inward exchange current developed in two phases, a fast phase within the time course of solution changes, and a slow phase (tau approximately 4 s) indicative of recovery from sodium-dependent inactivation. (e) Under zero-trans conditions, the inward current was fully activated within solution switch times upon application of cytoplasmic calcium and did not decay. (f) The slow recovery phase of inward current upon removal of cytoplasmic sodium was also present under the zero-trans condition. (g) Sodium-dependent inactivation shows little or no dependence on membrane potential in guinea pig myocyte sarcolemma. (h) Sodium-dependent inactivation of outward current is attenuated in rate and extent as extracellular calcium is decreased. (i) Kinetics of the sodium-dependent inactivation and its dependence on major experimental variables are well described by a simple two-state inactivation model assuming one fully active and one fully inactive exchanger state, whereby the transition to the inactive state takes place from a fully sodium-loaded exchanger conformation with cytoplasmic orientation of binding sites (E1.3Ni).