Early identification of patients with symptomless left-ventricular dysfunction and early pharmacologic intervention may have an impact on the outlook of patients with heart failure. Atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP) is a cardiac hormone that is released as a C-terminal (C-ANP) and an N-terminal peptide (N-ANP). Since N-ANP has reduced clearance rates compared with C-ANP, N-ANP circulates at higher concentrations. Based on the known increased concentration of C-ANP in symptomatic congestive heart failure, our study was designed to evaluate prospectively N-ANP profile and left-ventricular function in subjects with symptomless and symptomatic heart failure, and the role of plasma N-ANP as a marker for early identification of patients with heart failure. 180 patients who were referred for rest and exercise radionuclide angiography for evaluation of left-ventricular function were studied. Blood was taken for measurement of C-ANP and N-ANP before angiography. Patients were grouped according to New York Heart Association (NYHA) heart failure classification and left-ventricular function. Mean (SD) plasma N-ANP concentration in patients with symptomless left-ventricular dysfunction (NYHA class I, n = 70) was 243 (256) pmol/L (range 27-922 pmol/L), and was higher (p < 0.001) than in 25 control subjects (28 pmol/L). A plasma N-ANP concentration above 54 pmol/L (mean +/- 1.96SD of the control group) had a sensitivity of 90% and a specificity of 92% for detection of patients with symptomless left-ventricular dysfunction. We have shown that plasma N-ANP concentrations are significantly increased in patients with symptomless left-ventricular dysfunction and that this peptide can serve as a marker for diagnosis of such patients.