The purpose of this investigation was to study whether favorable renal effects might contribute to the influence of captopril in offsetting ventricular dilatation after infarction. Effective renal plasma flow and glomerular filtration rate were estimated by isotope injection methods in 20 patients on days 2, 7, 8, 42 and 180 after a first transmural anterior myocardial infarction. After measurements on day 7, patients were randomized to receive either captopril 25 mg 3 times daily (n = 10) or placebo (n = 10) for the remainder of the study. At baseline (day 7) there were no differences between the 2 treatment groups in radionuclide left ventricular ejection fraction, effective renal plasma flow, glomerular filtration rate or neurohormones. Left ventricular ejection fractions (40 +/- 4% [mean +/- 2 SD] at baseline) were higher in the captopril- than the placebo-treated patients on days 42 (p <0.05) and 180 (p <0.01) after infarction. Effective renal plasma flow became significantly higher at all time points after randomization in the captopril-treated group than in the placebo group (p <0.001). A similar but lesser trend was observed for glomerular filtration rate. Plasma atrial natriuretic factor and aldosterone were significantly higher in the placebo group (p <0.05). Renal hemodynamic indexes were directly correlated with and neurohumoral indexes inversely correlated with ejection fractions. In a second group of 12 patients with higher baseline ejection fractions (48 +/- 4%) after an inferior infarction, none of these beneficial effects of captopril were demonstrable. It is proposed that in the setting of left ventricular dysfunction after infarction, a prompt and sustained improvement in renal hemodynamics, by reducing inappropriate fluid retention and thus ventricular preload, may be one contributory mechanism by which captopril prevents progression of left ventricular dilatation.