In Duchenne's muscular dystrophy (DMD), cardiac function deteriorates with time and heart failure is one of the major causes of death. The aim of the study was to determine if a decrease in the ventricular inotropic reserves could be an early sign of cardiac dysfunction in these children. Nineteen children with DMD (aged 9 to 18 years, mean age 13.6 +/- 2.4) underwent equilibrium radionuclide angiography at rest and during an inotropic stimulation with low-dose dobutamine perfusion (7.5 to 15 microg. kg(-1). min(-1)). In all patients, this investigation was short (<30 minutes), successful, and uncomplicated. At rest, left ventricular (LV) ejection fraction (EF) was normal (>0.50) in 79% of patients, and right ventricular (RV) EF was normal (>0.45) in 95%. There was a trend toward a decrease with age for rest LVEF (p = 0.051) but not for rest RVEF (p = 0.8). By contrast, marked declines with age could be documented for the increases (Delta) in LVEF and RVEF during dobutamine perfusion (p = 0.002 for DeltaLVEF and p = 0.015 for DeltaRVEF). Thus, by multivariate analysis, the sole best indicator of decline in cardiac function with age was LVEF determined with dobutamine. In children with DMD, low-dose dobutamine radionuclide angiography gives evidence of an early decline with age of the inotropic reserves of both ventricles.