To investigate the pathogenesis of acute coronary disorders and to clarify what type of plaque precedes these disorders, percutaneous transluminal coronary angioscopy, by means of a new angioscope, was carried out during catheterisation in 100 consecutive patients anatomically suitable for such investigations. The quality of the angioscopic image was good enough for analysis in 84 patients (14 with acute myocardial infarction [within 8 h of onset], 16 with recent myocardial infarction [3 days-2 months since onset], 24 with old myocardial infarctions, 10 with unstable angina, and 20 with stable angina). Thrombi were observed in most patients with acute coronary disorders (all 14 with acute myocardial infarction, 9 of 10 with unstable angina). Occlusive thrombi were more common in patients with acute myocardial infarction than in those with unstable angina (11 [79%] vs 1 [10%]; p less than 0.001), whereas mural (non-occlusive) thrombi were more common in the unstable angina than in the acute myocardial infarction group (8 [80%] vs 3 [21%]; p less than 0.001). Xanthomatous ulcerated plaques or ragged irregular surfaces were seen in patients with acute coronary disorders and in those with recent myocardial infarction. Xanthomatous plaques were more common in patients with acute coronary disorders (50%) than in those with stable angina (15%) or old myocardial infarction (8%). By contrast white and smooth plaques were seen in cases of stable angina and old myocardial infarction. Angioscopy could display the intracoronary lumen more precisely than could coronary arteriography. This angioscopic study suggested that, although a thrombus overlying a rupture in the lining of the plaque was common in both unstable angina and acute myocardial infarction, the character of the thrombus may differ between these disorders, and lipid-rich xanthomatous plaque may precede rupture.