Inhibitory nonadrenergic noncholinergic (i-NANC) nerves are the only neural bronchodilator pathway in human airways. Possible candidates for the neurotransmitter include vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) and nitric oxide (NO) and purines such as ATP. We have investigated the potential role of these neurotransmitters. Phosphoramidon (10(-5) M) significantly potentiated relaxations to low doses of VIP with no effect on i-NANC responses. Relaxations induced by VIp were abolished with alpha-chymotrypsin (2 U/ml), but i-NANC responses were unaffected. Reactive blue 2 had no effect on i-NANC neural responses, indicating that endogenous ATP was not involved. The NO synthase inhibitor L-NG-nitroarginine methyl ester (L-NAME, 10(-4) M) produced a concentration-dependent inhibition of the i-NANC response, producing almost complete inhibition at every frequency studied (0.5-40 Hz), whereas L-NG-monomethyl arginine was effective only at low stimulation frequencies. The inhibitory effect of L-NAME was partially reversed by L- but not D-arginine, and D-NAME was without effect. These results suggest that in human tracheal segments the neural bronchodilator response is mediated by NO, and there is no functional evidence for implicating VIP in this response.