In the human upright lung the downward increase in lung perfusion reverses in the lower third, thus giving rise to a zone of reduced basal perfusion (zone 4). The flow in zone 4 is regulated by the extra-alveolar vessels, the diameter of which is determined by lung volume, perivascular interstitial pressure, and vasomotor tone. To estimate the role of pulmonary vascular tone in the formation of zone 4, we infused nitroprusside (NTP), a potent pulmonary vasodilator, in six normal seated subjects. We measured their regional perfusion distribution using 133Xe in control conditions and at two dose levels of NTP (20.8 and 52.1 micrograms/min). Regional perfusion distribution was measured similarly and according to the same protocol in six subjects receiving only a placebo solution. In four of the six subjects receiving NTP, right-heart catheterization allowed simultaneous estimations of cardiac output and pulmonary arterial pressure to be made. NTP slightly decreased the perfusion of the nondependent parts of the lungs and markedly increased the perfusion of the lung bases, thus reducing the extent of zone 4. No changes were observed in the placebo experiments. Cardiac output and indices of ventilation and gas exchange did not change significantly. Peripheral and pulmonary arterial pressure fell slightly but significantly during NTP infusion. We attribute the observed changes in basal perfusion to the vasodilatory effects of NTP on the extra-alveolar vessels. Our findings thus support the hypothesis that in normal subjects zone 4 is partly created by the pulmonary vascular tone.