Although the mechanisms of nocturnal asthma are still uncertain, increased vagal cholinergic tone may be contributory factor. To examine this hypothesis, we have studied the effect of an anticholinergic drug, oxitropium bromide, on the early morning fall in peak expiratory flow (PEF) in patients with nocturnal asthma. Eighteen patients (aged 18 to 76 years; seven men) with documented nocturnal asthma were studied in a double-blind randomized cross-over study in which they received either oxitropium bromide (200 micrograms or 400 micrograms) or placebo in a single dose at night for two-week periods. With placebo the mean (+/- SE) fall in PEF (expressed as percentage of evening PEF) was 17.3 +/- 2.0 percent, which was significantly reduced to 10.3 +/- 3.3 percent after oxitropium (400 micrograms) (p less than 0.05; ANOVA). Closer analysis revealed that nine of the 18 patients had responded in a dose-dependent manner, with the mean percentage decreases with placebo, 200 micrograms, and 400 micrograms of oxitropium being 19.1 +/- 3.2, 11.5 +/- 4.4, and 5.0 +/- 4.5 percent, respectively (p less than 0.01 between each treatment). The remaining patients were unaffected by therapy. There were no differences between "responders" and "non-responders" in terms of age, atopic status, duration of asthma, severity of asthma, or bronchodilator response to albuterol (salbutamol). There were no differences in nocturnal symptoms between periods of treatment, and no side effects were recorded. We conclude that anticholinergic drugs may protect against nocturnal asthma in some patients, indicating the involvement of vagal cholinergic mechanisms.