To assess the causal relation between acute mental stress and myocardial ischemia, we evaluated cardiac function in selected patients during a series of mental tasks (arithmetic, the Stroop color--word task, simulated public speaking, and reading) and compared the responses with those induced by exercise. Thirty-nine patients with coronary artery disease and 12 controls were studied by radionuclide ventriculography. Of the patients with coronary artery disease, 23 (59 percent) had wall-motion abnormalities during periods of mental stress and 14 (36 percent) had a fall in ejection fraction of more than 5 percentage points. Ischemia induced by mental stress was symptomatically "silent" in 19 of the 23 patients with wall-motion abnormalities (83 percent) and occurred at lower heart rates than exercise-induced ischemia (P less than 0.05). In contrast, we observed comparable elevations in arterial pressure during ischemia induced by mental stress and ischemia induced by exercise. A personally relevant, emotionally arousing speaking task induced more frequent and greater regional wall-motion abnormalities than did less specific cognitive tasks causing mental stress (P less than 0.05). The magnitude of cardiac dysfunction induced by the speaking task was similar to that induced by exercise. Personally relevant mental stress may be an important precipitant of myocardial ischemia--often silent--in patients with coronary artery disease. Further examination of the pathophysiologic mechanisms responsible for myocardial ischemia induced by mental stress could have important implications for the treatment of transient myocardial ischemia.