In an attempt to explain the clinical efficacy of aminophylline, we studied its effect on diaphragmatic function in eight normal subjects. The relation between the electrical activity of the diaphragm and the pressure generated by the diaphragm was assessed during voluntary contractions before and after aminophylline infusion. Aminophylline shifted the electrical activity/pressure curve to the left; the pressure at a given electrical activity increased an average of 15 per cent (P less than 0.001). In four subjects, pressure was also measured during stimulation of the phrenic nerve at various frequencies before and after diaphragmatic fatigue was produced by resistive breathing, with and without aminophylline infusion. Pressure increased after fatigue at all stimulation frequencies with aminophylline, as compared with the pressure after identical fatigue runs at the same stimulation frequencies without aminophylline. The mean plasma aminophylline concentration associated with these responses was 13 +/- 0.9 mg per liter. We conclude that aminophylline improves the diaphragm's contractility and renders it less susceptible to fatigue.