We developed techniques for assessing airway reactivity in isolated perfused rat lungs by measuring the lung mechanics changes produced by injection of ACh into the pulmonary circulation. Lung resistance (RL) and dynamic compliance (Cdyn) changed in a dose-response fashion after ACh. We used the preparation to examine the effect of thoracic irradiation on airway responsiveness and pulmonary inflammation. Groups of rats were studied after sham irradiation or 24 h or 72 h after a single dose of 1500 rads. Thoracic irradiation did not alter baseline lung mechanics, but did increase the responsiveness of rat lungs to ACh 72 h after radiation. Radiation was not associated with an increase in neutrophils in lung lavage, airways or peripheral lung tissue. We conclude that thoracic irradiation alters airways reactivity without causing overt pulmonary inflammation, and that isolated perfused lungs can be useful for measurement of airway reactivity.