To compare acute effects of nitroglycerin (0.8 mg sublingually), nifedipine (5 ng/kg/min i.v.) and metoprolol (0.15 mg/kg i.v.) on normal, ischemic and scarred myocardial segments in man, we performed simultaneous hemodynamic and radionuclide measurements of left ventricular functions. Sixteen patients with isolated left anterior descending (LAD) disease were studied at rest and during exercise. Nine patients had angina and exercise-induced ischemia (LAD stenosis) and seven patients had previous transmural myocardial infarction and no ischemic changes during thallium imaging (LAD occlusion). The effects of the drugs on regional ejection fraction of the involved anteroseptal region and the normal posterolateral area were compared. Global ejection fraction at rest did not change after nitroglycerin, increased after nifedipine and decreased after metoprolol. In patients with ischemia, the exercise ejection fraction improved after all drugs due to increased regional ejection fraction in ischemic segments: i.e., a regional antiischemic effect evidenced by improved regional function could be demonstrated with all three agents. Regional ejection fraction increased from 35.8 +/- 19.5% to 66.2 +/- 15.2% (+/- SD) after nitroglycerin (p less than 0.001), to 61.7 +/- 8.7% after nifedipine (p less than 0.001), and to 48.4 +/- 7.0% after metoprolol (p less than 0.01). In regions of myocardial scar, regional ejection fraction was not changed after any drug. In normal areas, regional ejection fraction remained unchanged after nitroglycerin and nifedipine, but decreased after metoprolol. Despite similar antiischemic effects of all three drugs, underlying hemodynamic mechanisms were quite different and may provide a rationale for combined forms of treatment. These results may help to select optimal drug combinations to improve myocardial performance in patients with chronic ischemic heart disease.