The effects of gender, volume history, and inhaled atropine and isoproterenol on lung mechanics were assessed in 16 normal boys and 14 normal girls using lung volumes, flow-volume curves, and oscillatory resistances. Flows were measured from full and partial forced expiratory flow-volume curves. Six girls and 6 boys were studied before and after inhaled atropine, and 10 boys and 8 girls before and after inhaled isoproterenol. Girls demonstrated a significant increase in flows on full and partial curves with a deep inspiration [Vmax-partial 0.73 +/- 0.34 (SD) to Vmax-full 0.80 +/- 0.37 and 0.83 +/- 0.20 to 1.06 +/- 0.29 TLC/s in each group] and following inhalation of isoproterenol on the partial curves only (0.73 +/- 0.34 to 0.93 +/- 0.40 TLC/s). Boys showed a small but significant increase in Vmax with isoproterenol on full curves but not on partial curves. Following atropine, boys demonstrated a significant increase in Vmax on partial flow-volume curves (0.78 +/- 0.28 to 1.00 +/- 0.35 TLC/s) and a significant decrease in specific respiratory resistance (7.6 +/- 2.7 to 5.1 +/- 0.9 cmH2O/s), whereas girls had no such changes. These data suggest that boys have greater resting airway tone than girls and that this tone is less responsive to deep inspiration and isoproterenol independently, although a combination of isoproterenol and a deep inspiration will produce increased flows in boys. Atropine reduces airway tone predominantly in boys, suggesting that the increased resting airway tone in boys is partially mediated via the vagus nerve. (C) 1993 Wiley-Liss, Inc.