The ventilator's response to the patient's effort is quite different in proportional assist ventilation (PAV) and pressure support ventilation (PSV). We wished to determine whether this results in different ventilatory and breathing pattern responses to alterations in level of support and, if so, whether there are any gas exchange consequences. Fourteen patients were studied. Average elastance (E) was 22.8 (range, 14 -36) cm H2O/L and average resistance (R) was 15. 7 (range, 9-21) cm H2O/L/s. The highest PSV support (PSVmax) was that associated with a tidal volume (VT) of 10 ml/kg (20.4 +/- 3.2 cm H2O), and the highest level of PAV assist (PAVmax) was 78 +/- 7% of E and 76 +/- 7% of R. Level of assist was decreased in steps to the lowest tolerable level (PSVmin, PAVmin). Minute ventilation, VT, ventilator rate (RRvent), and arterial gas tensions were measured at each level. We also determined the patient's respiratory rate (RRpat) by adding the number of ineffective efforts (DeltaRR) to RRvent. There was no difference between PSVmin and PAVmin in any of the variables. At PSVmax, VT was significantly higher (0.90 +/- 0.30 versus 0.51 +/- 0.16 L) and RRvent was significantly lower (13.2 +/- 3.9 versus 27.6 +/- 10.5 min-1) than at PAVmax. The difference in RRvent was largely related to a progressive increase in ineffective efforts on PSV as level increased (DeltaRR 12.1 +/- 10.1 vs 1.4 +/- 2.1 with PAVmax); there was no significant difference in RRpat. The differences in breathing pattern had no consequence on arterial blood gas tensions. We conclude that substantial differences in breathing pattern may occur between PSV and PAV and that these are largely artifactual and related to different patient-ventilator interactions.