Whether human coronary arteries undergo compensatory enlargement in the presence of coronary disease has not been clarified. We studied histologic sections of the left main coronary artery in 136 hearts obtained at autopsy to determine whether atherosclerotic human coronary arteries enlarge in relation to plaque (lesion) area and to assess whether such enlargement preserves the cross-sectional area of the lumen. The area circumscribed by the internal elastic lamina (internal elastic lamina area) was taken as a measure of the area of the arterial lumen if no plaque had been present. The internal elastic lamina area correlated directly with the area of the lesion (r = 0.44, P less than 0.001), suggesting that coronary arteries enlarge as lesion area increases. Regression analysis yielded the following equation: Internal elastic lamina area = 9.26 + 0.88 (lesion area) + 0.026 (age) + 0.005 (heart weight). The correlation coefficient for the lesion area was significant (P less than 0.001), whereas the correlation coefficients for age and heart weight were not. The lumen area did not decrease in relation to the percentage of stenosis (lesion area/internal elastic lamina area X 100) for values between zero and 40 percent but did diminish markedly and in close relation to the percentage of stenosis for values above 40 percent (r = -0.73, P less than 0.001). We conclude that human coronary arteries enlarge in relation to plaque area and that functionally important lumen stenosis may be delayed until the lesion occupies 40 percent of the internal elastic lamina area. The preservation of a nearly normal lumen cross-sectional area despite the presence of a large plaque should be taken into account in evaluating atherosclerotic disease with use of coronary angiography.