High peak inspiratory pressures (PIP) during mechanical ventilation can induce lung injury. In the present study we compare the respective roles of high tidal volume with high PIP in intact immature rabbits to determine whether the increase in capillary permeability is the result of overdistension of the lung or direct pressure effects. New Zealand White rabbits were assigned to one of three protocols, which produced different degrees of inspiratory volume limitation: intact closed-chest animals (CC), closed-chest animals with a full-body plaster cast (C), and isolated excised lungs (IL). The intact animals were ventilated at 15, 30, or 45 cmH2O PIP for 1 h, and the lungs of the CC and C groups were placed in an isolated lung perfusion system. Microvascular permeability was evaluated using the capillary filtration coefficient (Kfc). Base-line Kfc for isolated lungs before ventilation was 0.33 +/- 0.31 ml.min-1.cmH2O-1.100g-1 and was not different from the Kfc in the CC group ventilated with 15 cmH2O PIP. Kfc increased by 850% after ventilation with only 15 cmH2O PIP in the unrestricted IL group, and in the CC group Kfc increased by 31% after 30 cmH2O PIP and 430% after 45 cmH2O PIP. Inspiratory volume limitation by the plaster cast in the C group prevented any significant increase in Kfc at the PIP values used. These data indicate that volume distension of the lung rather than high PIP per se produces microvascular damage in the immature rabbit lung.