To investigate the capacity of the pulmonary vascular bed to acutely vasodilate, we examined in 35 consecutive patients with primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH), the hemodynamic effects of incremental inhalation periods of an air-NO mixture at different concentrations (10, 20, and 40 ppm), and compared them with those of an acute infusion of prostacyclin (PGI2). An individual pulmonary vasodilator response was defined by a fall in total pulmonary resistance (TPR) > or = 30% relative to mean TPR baseline value. Thirteen patients were responders and 22 were nonresponders to both drugs, and they did not significantly differ in overall baseline characteristics except for mean right atrial pressure (p < 0.03). In responders, both drugs produced similar individual vasodilator response. Changes in mean pulmonary arterial pressure and TPR observed during NO and PGI2 were closely correlated (r2 = 0.9, p < 0.001, and r2 = 0.7, p < 0.01, respectively). The vasodilator response to NO was not concentration-related with a maximal effect obtained at 10 ppm. Combination of both drugs did not lead to any additive vasodilator response. Unlike PGI2, NO did not induce any systemic effect, no adverse reaction, but a moderate increase in methemoglobin. Inhaled NO at low dose (10 ppm) appears to be an effective, safe, and reliable substitute for PGI2 in screening for acute pulmonary vasodilator responsiveness during therapeutic assessment of patients with PPH.