Aminophylline has been shown to dramatically reduce the filtering capacity of the lung in dogs during venous air embolism. Similarities have been pointed out between the cardiovascular and respiratory systems of the pig and of humans. We therefore wanted to find out whether aminophylline also modifies the transpulmonary spillover of microbubbles to the arterial circulation of the pig. Twenty-eight pigs were anesthetized with pentobarbital sodium and mechanically ventilated. Aminophylline was injected intravenously into 10 of the pigs before the introduction of air bubbles into the right ventricle, while the other 18 pigs served as controls. A transesophageal echocardiographic probe was used to detect eventual air bubbles in the left atrium or in the aorta. Pigs received either air infusion, at rates varying from 0.05 to 0.20 ml.kg-1.min-1, or calibrated microbubbles, 5-300 microns diam. We found that aminophylline-treated pigs did not show any change in spillover incidence compared with controls. Furthermore, in both groups the spillover during continuous air infusion seemed to be a preterminal event, because the pigs had very low arterial pressure when arterial bubbles were observed. Finally, there was an increase in mean pulmonary arterial pressure from 18 +/- 3.4 to 26 +/- 2.2 (SD) mmHg (n = 4, P less than 0.01) in aminophylline-treated pigs after a bolus injection of microbubbles (less than or equal to 50 microns, total volume less than 0.5 ml). Our results suggest that aminophylline does not modify the transpulmonary passage of microbubbles in this porcine model. In addition, it would seem that the pulmonary circulation of the pig is sensitive to very small volumes of air, when injected as microbubbles.