Vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP) is one of the main neurotransmitters implicated in the relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The effect of exogenous VIP on LES motor activity was determined by esophageal manometry. LES pressure (LESP) and LES relaxation were compared in four healthy volunteers and in six patients with achalasia. The effects of intravenous doses of 1.5, 3, and 5 pmol.kg-1.min-1 of VIP were compared with placebo. Neither placebo nor 3 and 5 pmol.kg-1.min-1 of VIP produced any effect on esophageal motility in healthy volunteers. In achalasia the three doses of VIP caused a dose-dependent decrease in LESP with a significant improvement in LES relaxation. A dose of 5 pmol.kg-1.min-1 produced a maximal decrease of 51% in LESP. A beta-adrenergic agonist, isoproterenol, caused a decrease in LESP both in healthy volunteers and in patients with achalasia without improving LES relaxation. In summary, intravenous VIP improved LES relaxation and caused a decrease in LESP in patients with achalasia without affecting LESP in healthy volunteers, indicating that the LES muscle in achalasia is supersensitive to VIP. The current study suggests that a selective damage in the noncholinergic nonadrenergic innervation of the esophagus is in part responsible for the motor alteration seen in these patients. The findings and the inability of isoproterenol to improve LES relaxation despite decreasing LESP support a role in VIP as a indicator of LES relaxation.