Ventilatory function tests, ventilatory cycle analysis, mouth occlusion pressure (P0.1) and effective inspiratory impedance (P0.1/Vt/Ti) were measured in 11 healthy subjects and in 26 patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In COPD patients these measurements were repeated 20 min after inhalation of 400 micrograms of fenoterol. In patients we observed an increase of mean inspiratory flow (Vt/Ti), and a decrease of inspiratory time (Ti) and inspiratory duty cycle (Ti/Ttot). P0.1 and effective inspiratory impedance were significantly increased. Moreover, we found a direct correlation between forced expiratory volume in 1 s (FEV1) and ventilatory cycle components (Ti/Ttot, Ti) and an indirect correlation between FEV1 and Vt/Ti.P0.1 was directly correlated with Vt/Ti and indirectly correlated with ventilatory cycle components. These observations lead us to speculate on the possible role of two opposite mechanisms acting on the control of breathing of COPD patients. While the 'intensity' component of the ventilatory cycle would be set to maintain the tidal volume at a constant level, the 'timing' component would act in order to prevent inspiratory muscle fatigue. Furthermore, in patients responsive to beta 2-agonist drugs, fenoterol inhalation would act in synergy with the timing component of ventilatory cycle, lowering P0.1 and the effective inspiratory impedance.