We delivered controlled radio frequency energy to the airways of anesthetized, ventilated dogs to examine the effect of this treatment on reducing airway narrowing caused by a known airway constrictor. The airways of 11 dogs were treated with a specially designed bronchial catheter in three of four lung regions. Treatments in each of the three treated lung regions were controlled to a different temperature (55, 65, and 75 degrees C); the untreated lung region served as a control. We measured airway responsiveness to local methacholine chloride (MCh) challenge before and after treatment and examined posttreatment histology to 3 yr. Treatments controlled to 65 degrees C as well as 75 degrees C persistently and significantly reduced airway responsiveness to local MCh challenge (P < or = 0.022). Airway responsiveness (mean percent decrease in airway diameter after MCh challenge) averaged from 6 mo to 3 yr posttreatment was 79 +/- 2.2% in control airways vs. 39 +/- 2.6% (P < or = 0.001) for airways treated at 65 degrees C, and 26 +/- 2.7% (P < or = 0.001) for airways treated at 75 degrees C. Treatment effects were confined to the airway wall and the immediate peribronchial region on histological examination. Airway responsiveness to local MCh challenge was inversely correlated to the extent of altered airway smooth muscle observed in histology (r = -0.54, P < 0.001). We conclude that the temperature-controlled application of radio frequency energy to the airways can reduce airway responsiveness to MCh for at least 3 yr in dogs by reducing airway smooth muscle contractility.