Based on recent studies, it has been suggested that free radicals are elaborated in the respiratory muscles during strenuous contractions and contribute to the development of muscle fatigue. If this theory is correct, then it should be possible to attenuate the development of diaphragm fatigue and/or delay the onset of respiratory failure during loaded breathing by administering a free radical scavenger. The purpose of the present experiment was, therefore, to examine the effect of N-acetylcysteine (NAC), a free radical scavenger and glutathione precursor, on the evolution of respiratory failure in decerebrate unanesthetized rats breathing against a large inspiratory resistive load. We compared the inspiratory volume and pressure generation over time in animals pretreated with either saline or NAC (150 mg/kg) and then loaded until respiratory arrest. After arrest, the diaphragm was excised, and samples were assayed for reduced (GSH) and oxidized glutathione. As a control, we also assessed respiratory function and glutathione concentrations in groups of nonloaded saline- and NAC-treated animals. We found that NAC-treated animals were able to tolerate loading better than the saline-treated group, maintaining higher inspiratory pressures and sustaining higher inspired volumes. Administration of NAC also increased the time that animals could tolerate loading before the development of respiratory arrest. In addition, although saline-treated loaded animals had significant reductions in diaphragmatic GSH levels compared with unloaded controls, the magnitude of this reduction was blunted by NAC administration (i.e., GSH averaged 965 +/- 113, 568 +/- 83, 907 +/- 39, and 784 +/- 61 nmol/g for unloaded-saline, loaded-saline, unloaded-NAC, and loaded-NAC groups, P < 0.05, with the value for the loaded-saline group lower than the values for the two unloaded groups; GSH for the loaded-NAC group was not different, however, from unloaded controls). These data demonstrate that administration of NAC, a free radical scavenger, slows the rate of development of respiratory failure during inspiratory resistive loading.