We compared inhibitory nonadrenergic noncholinergic (i-NANC) neural relaxations, evoked by electrical field stimulation (EFS), at three levels (main [MA], proximal [PA], and distal [DA] airways) of isolated human airways and correlated these with nitric oxide synthase-immunoreactive (NOS-IR) nerves, using antiserum raised to rat cerebellar NOS. Maximal relaxations to papaverine (100 microM) were reduced in PA and DA (MA: 1,712 +/- 219 mg, n = 12; DA: 862 +/- 69 mg, n = 5, P < 0.05 versus MA); hence, subsequent relaxations were expressed as a percentage of the papaverine maximum. EFS elicited frequency-dependent relaxations that were largest in MA and reduced in PA and DA, especially at high stimulation frequencies (10 Hz EFS: MA: 51.6 +/- 3.7%, n = 12; PA: 30.5 +/- 6.0%, n = 6, P < 0.01 versus MA; DA: 17.8 +/- 3.6%, n = 5, P < 0.001 versus MA). The NOS inhibitor L-NG-nitroarginine methyl ester (L-NAME) (100 microM) and tetrodotoxin (3 microM) significantly inhibited i-NANC responses at all frequencies, leaving an L-NAME-resistant non-neural relaxation at frequencies > 5 Hz which was reduced in PA and DA. Cumulative concentration-response studies to sodium nitroprusside (1 nM to 0.1 mM) and the NO donor 3-morpholinosydnonimine (1 nM to 1 mM) were not significantly different in PA and DA, suggesting impaired relaxation is not caused by impaired guanylyl cyclase activity. Total nerve density, shown by protein gene product 9.5 staining, was not significantly different in PA and DA; however, NOS-IR nerve density was reduced in PA and DA (NOS-IR [intercepts/mm2]: MA: 705 +/- 98, n = 6; DA: 284 +/- 32, n = 6, P < 0.01 versus MA). These studies demonstrate that i NANC neural relaxations are reduced in DA, apparently due to a decrease in the density of nitrergic innervation.