We have previously shown in studies of experimental animals that myocardium exhibits a cardiac cycle-dependent variation of integrated backscatter that reflects regional myocardial contractile performance and that is blunted promptly after arterial occlusion and recovers after reperfusion. To define the clinical utility of ultrasonic tissue catheterization with integrated backscatter for detection of acute myocardial infarction and reperfusion, 21 patients (14 men and seven women) were studied in the cardiac care unit within the first 24 hours (mean time, 11.3 hours; range, 3.5-23.8 hours) after the onset of symptoms indicative of acute myocardial infarction with conventional two-dimensional and M-mode echocardiography and with analysis of integrated backscatter. The magnitude of cyclic variation of integrated backscatter was measured from several sites within acute infarct regions and normal regions remote from the infarct zone for each patient. The average magnitude of cyclic variation among all patients (n = 21) was 4.8 ± 0.5 dB in normal regions compared with 0.8 ± 0.3 dB in infarct regions (p < 0.05) within the first 24 hours after the onset of symptoms. Among the patients who had two studies, 15 (mean, 7.1 days; range, 2-31 days for second study) underwent coronary arteriography to define vessel patency. In patients with vessels with documented patency (n = 10), the magnitude of cyclic variation in infarct regions increased over time from 1.3 ± 0.6 to 2.5 ± 0.5 dB from the initial to final study (p < 0.05). Patients with occluded infarct-related arteries (n = 5) exhibited no significant recovery of cyclic variation (0.3 ± 0.3 - 0.6 ± 0.3 dB). A blinded analysis of standard two-dimensional echocardiographic images revealed no significant recovery of wall thickening in either group over the same time intervals. Ultrasonic tissue characterization promptly detects acute myocardial infarction and may delineate potential beneficial effects of coronary artery reperfusion manifest by restoration of cyclic variation of integrated backscatter in the presence of severe wall motion abnormalities.