The hemodynamic and cardiovascular effects of isoflurane and halothane anesthesia were studied in 15 unpremedicated ASA I children using measurements of heart rate, blood pressure and M-mode echocardiography (echo). The children (ages 2 to 7.3 yr) were randomly assigned to receive either isoflurane (N = 8) or halothane (N = 7) with oxygen. End-tidal carbon dioxide concentrations (range 30-44 mmHg) were monitored throughout the study in each child. The experimental protocol was completed prior to intubation and the initiation of surgery. Within each anesthetic group, preinduction (control) hemodynamic and echo measurements were compared with measurements obtained at two sequential equipotent end-tidal anesthetic concentrations (0.74% and 2.22% isoflurane; or 0.5% and 1.5% halothane). We also compared the data of the isoflurane group with that of the halothane group at each equipotent end-tidal anesthetic concentration. Preinduction hemodynamic (heart rate, blood pressure) and echo measurements (left ventricular dimensions and function) were similar between the two anesthetic groups. With isoflurane or halothane administration, blood pressure decreased significantly, while heart rate remained essentially unchanged. The observed alterations in heart rate and blood pressure were similar in both study groups at each equipotent end-tidal anesthetic concentration. In contrast, there were marked differences in the echo measurements of the two anesthetic groups. Halothane was associated with a significant dose-dependent decrease in echo-measured left-ventricular shortening fraction and mean velocity of circumferential fiber shortening. These echo measurements were not significantly altered by isoflurane at either end-tidal anesthetic concentration. These alterations suggest halothane is associated with significant myocardial depression in normal children, while myocardial function is well preserved during isoflurane anesthesia.