We studied the effect of vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) on ciliary activity in rabbit cultured tracheal epithelium by a photoelectric method in vitro. Administration of VIP (10(-7) M) elicited an increase in ciliary beat frequency (CBF) from the baseline values of 970 +/- 52 to 1139 +/- 75 beats/min (mean +/- S.E., P less than 0.01). This ciliostimulatory effect was dose-dependent, with the maximal increase and EC50 value being 17.4 +/- 1.0% (P less than 0.05) and 6.10(-11) M, respectively. The VIP-induced increase in CBF was abolished by pretreatment of cells with [4-Cl-D-Phe6, Leu17]-VIP, a VIP receptor antagonist. The neutral endopeptidase inhibitor phosphoramidon (10(-5) M) potentiated the effect of VIP, so that the CBF dose-response curve for VIP was shifted to lower concentrations by 0.5 log U. The administration of VIP increased cyclic AMP levels in epithelial cells, an effect that was also potentiated by phosphoramidon. These results suggest that VIP may interact with its specific receptors and stimulate airway ciliary activity probably through the activation of adenylate cyclase, and that neutral endopeptidase may play a role in modulating this effect of VIP.