BACKGROUND Inhaled nitric oxide (NO) improves arterial oxygenation in patients with acute lung injury (ALI) by selectively dilating pulmonary vessels perfusing ventilated lung areas. It can be hypothesized that NO uptake from the lung decreases with increasing ventilation perfusion mismatch. This study was undertaken to determine the factors influencing the fluctuation of tracheal NO concentration over the respiratory cycle as an index of NO pulmonary uptake in patients with ALI. METHODS By using a prototype system (Opti-NO) delivering a constant flow of NO only during the inspiratory phase, 3 and 6 ppm of NO were administered during controlled mechanical ventilation into a lung model and to 11 patients with ALI. All patients had a thoracic computed tomography (CT) scan. Based on an analysis of tomographic densities, lungs were divided into three zones: normally aerated (-1.000 to -500 Hounsfield units [HU]), poorly aerated (-500 to -100 HU), and nonaerated (-100 to +100 HU), and the volume of each zone was computed. Concentrations of NO in the inspiratory limb and trachea were continuously measured by a fast-response chemiluminescence apparatus. RESULTS In the lung model, tracheal NO concentration was stable with minor fluctuation. In contrast, in patients, tracheal NO concentration fluctuated widely during the respiratory cycle (55 +/- 10%). Because uptake of NO from the lungs was absent in the lung model but present in the patients, this fluctuation was considered as an index of pulmonary uptake of NO. This was further substantiated by (1) the coincidence of the peak and minimum tracheal NO concentration with the end-inspiratory and end-expiratory phases, respectively, and (2) continued decrease of tracheal NO concentration during prolonged expiratory phase. In patients with ALI, the fluctuation of tracheal NO concentration expressed as the difference between inspiratory and expiratory NO concentrations divided by inspiratory NO concentration was greater at 6 ppm than at 3 ppm (P < 0.01), was linearly correlated with normally aerated lung volume, inversely correlated with alveolar dead space and with poorly aerated lung volume. CONCLUSION In patients with ALI, fluctuation of tracheal NO concentration over the respiratory cycle can be considered as an index of NO uptake from the lungs that depends on aerated lung volume and perfusion of ventilated lung areas. At bedside, it may be used to follow the evolution of ventilation-perfusion mismatch.