The airways of individuals with asthma are less distensible than normal and it has been assumed that this may be due to airway remodeling associated with chronic inflammation, although there are currently no available data directly relating these two aspects of asthma. We have therefore carried out a study of the relationship between airway distensibility (DeltaVD) and subepithelial reticular basement membrane (RBM) thickening as an index of airway remodeling, in a group of patients with relatively mild but symptomatic asthma. Our methods included a cross-sectional study of DeltaVD in patients with mild to moderate atopic asthma, with matched airway biopsy for structural components. We confirmed that DeltaVD was lower in patients with asthma than in normal individuals (19.8 +/- 1.1 versus 24.1 +/- 1.5; p < 0.05) and that RBM thickness was increased in patients with asthma (9.1 +/- 2.2 versus 7.7 +/- 1.2 microm; p < 0.01). There was a negative correlation between DeltaVD and RBM thickness in asthma (r = -0.37, p = 0.03) and positive correlations between percent predicted postbronchodilator large and small airway function (for percent predicted FEV(1 )versus DeltaVD, r = 0.59, p < 0.001). We conclude that, cross-sectionally, DeltaVD was related to airway remodeling (RBM thickening) and airflow limitation (percent predicted large and small airway function). Our findings support the hypothesis that DeltaVD is a physiologic test that is reflective of airway remodeling.