During assisted ventilation, the same tidal volume can be delivered in different ways, with the possibility for the physician to vary the ventilatory target (pressure or volume) and the peak flow setting. We compared the effects on the respiratory work rate of assisted ventilation, delivered either with a square wave flow pattern (assist control ventilation [ACV]) or with a decelerating flow pattern and a constant pressure (assisted pressure-control ventilation [APCV]). In the first part of the study where seven patients were studied, inspiratory time and tidal volume were similar in the two modes of ventilation. High and moderate levels of tidal volume (VT) were studied (12 ml/kg and 8 ml/kg, respectively). To obtain moderate VT, inspiratory time was kept constant and, therefore, mean inspiratory flow was reduced. At high VT, no difference between ACV and APCV was noted for breathing pattern, respiratory drive indexes, respiratory muscle work, or arterial blood gases. All patients exhibited respiratory alkalosis. At moderate VT, normal pH was achieved. In this situation significantly lower levels were observed during APCV than during ACV for the power of breathing (10 +/- 2 versus 19 +/- 5 J/min, p<0.05), transdiaphragmatic pressure swing (7 +/- 1 versus 11 +/- 2 cm H2O, p<0.05), and pressure-time index (252 +/- 43 versus 484 +/- 114 cm H2O.s, p<0.05), even though breathing pattern and gas exchange were similar. In the second part of the study where six additional patients were studied, tidal volume was kept constant at a moderate level (8 ml/kg), and we studied the effect of shortening inspiratory time and increasing mean inspiratory flow. At moderate VT and high inspiratory flow, no significant differences could be found between ACV and APCV, and although pressure-time index tended to be lower during APCV, absolute levels of effort were of small magnitude (56 +/- 55 versus 76 +/- 55 cm H2O.s). We conclude that at moderate VT and low flow rates only, inspiratory assistance delivered at a constant pressure reduces the respiratory work rate more effectively than assist control ventilation.