The role of inflammatory cells such as neutrophil granulocytes in the pathogenesis of pulmonary scarring is unclear. We determined the metabolic activity of neutrophils with positron emission tomography (PET) to measure regional uptake of (18F)-2-fluoro-2-deoxy-D-glucose (18FDG) following its intravenous injection. Fibrogenic or nonfibrogenic substances were instilled into the right upper lobe of rabbit lungs. Time course and intensity of the 18FDG signal in the affected region varied markedly, depending on the stimulus. Time to peak signal (Tmax) and rate constant for its decline (k) for the test substances were, respectively: C5a 10 h (Tmax), 0.045 +/- 0.030 h-1 (k); Streptococcus pneumoniae 15 h, 0.068 +/- 0.012 h-1; bleomycin 28 h, 0.002 +/- 0.001 h-1; microcrystalline silica (microXSiO2), 90 h, 0.0012 +/- 0.0007 h-1; amorphous silica (aSiO2), no response. Response to the nonfibrogenic agents C5a, S. pneumoniae and aSiO2 was brief or nonexistent, falling to baseline values within 3 d, whereas that to the fibrogenic agents bleomycin and microXSiO2 persisted for up to 4 wk. Neutrophil numbers in the lung were proportional to the 18FDG signal following C5a and S. pneumoniae, but not bleomycin and microXSiO2. Autoradiography of lungs following administration of (3H)-deoxyglucose [(3H)-DG] showed specific localization to neutrophils in all models. Thus, 18FDG uptake provides a remarkably specific measure of neutrophil activity in situ, and the development of pulmonary fibrosis may be related to persistence of this activity.