Lung mechanics, exhaled NO (NOe), and TNF-alpha in serum and bronchoalveolar lavage fluid were assessed in eight closed and eight open chest, normal anesthetized rabbits undergoing prolonged (3-4 h) mechanical ventilation (MV) at low volume with physiological tidal volumes (10 ml/kg). Relative to initial MV on positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP), MV at low volume increased lung quasi-static elastance (+267 and +281%), airway (+471 and +382%) and viscolelastic resistance (+480 and +294%), and decreased NOe (-42 and -25%) in closed and open chest rabbits, respectively. After restoration of PEEP, viscoelastic resistance returned to control, whereas airway resistance remained elevated (+120 and +31%) and NOe low (-25 and -20%) in both groups of rabbits. Elastance remained elevated (+23%) only in closed-chest animals, being associated with interstitial pulmonary edema, as reflected by increased lung wet-to-dry weight ratio with normal albumin concentration in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid. In contrast, in 16 additional closed- and open-chest rabbits, there were no changes of lung mechanics or NOe after prolonged MV on PEEP only. At the end of prolonged MV, TNF-alpha was practically undetectable in serum, whereas its concentration in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid was low and similar in animals subjected or not subjected to ventilation at low volume (62 vs. 43 pg/ml). These results indicate that mechanical injury of peripheral airways due to their cyclic opening and closing during ventilation at low volume results in changes in lung mechanics and reduction in NOe and that these alterations are not mediated by a proinflammatory process, since this is expressed by TNF-alpha levels.