Although the pulmonary circulation in infants with advanced bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) is characterized by abnormal structure and vasoreactivity, metabolic lung functions have not been studied in these infants. To test the hypothesis that patients with severe BPD may have abnormal metabolic lung function, we assessed the pulmonary vascular extraction of circulating norepinephrine in six children with BPD during cardiac catheterization. Plasma norepinephrine levels were measured from simultaneously drawn mixed venous (main pulmonary artery) and left atrium or femoral artery samples. In comparison with four infants with mild heart disease without pulmonary hypertension, we found that infants with BPD extract proportionately less norepinephrine than non-BPD infants [-7 +/- 50% (BPD) versus +27 +/- 6% (non-BPD); P less than 0.001, t test]. Three infants with BPD had higher arterial than mixed venous concentrations of plasma norepinephrine, suggesting net production across the lung. Plasma catecholamine levels and percent extraction correlated poorly with cardiac index and systemic and pulmonary vascular resistance indices. However, this study group was characterized by a high incidence of pulmonary (6/6) and systemic (4/6) hypertension, left ventricular hypertrophy (4/6), and subsequent death (3/6). We conclude that infants with severe BPD and pulmonary hypertension have decreased pulmonary vascular clearance or net production of circulating norepinephrine, but links between altered pulmonary catecholamine metabolism and pulmonary hypertension, or other cardiovascular abnormalities associated with BPD, remain speculative.