To determine whether methacholine causes vagally mediated reflex constriction of airway smooth muscle, we administered methacholine to sheep either via the bronchial artery or as an aerosol via tracheostomy into the lower airways. We then measured the contraction of an isolated, in situ segment of trachealis smooth muscle and determined the effect of vagotomy on the trachealis response. Administering methacholine to the subcarinal airways via the bronchial artery (0.5-10.0 microg/ml) caused dose-dependent bronchoconstriction and contraction of the tracheal segment. At the highest methacholine concentration delivered, trachealis smooth muscle tension increased an average of 186% over baseline. Aerosolized methacholine (5-7 breaths of 100 mg/ml) increased trachealis tension by 58% and airways resistance by 183%. As the bronchial circulation in the sheep does not supply the trachea, we postulated that the trachealis contraction was caused by a reflex response to methacholine in the lower airways. Bilateral vagotomy essentially eliminated the trachealis response and the airways resistance change after lower airways challenge (either via the bronchial artery or via aerosol) with methacholine. We conclude that 1) methacholine causes a substantial reflex contraction of airway smooth muscle and 2) the assumption may not be valid that a response to methacholine in humans or experimental animals represents solely the direct effect on smooth muscle.