BACKGROUND: Mechanical ventilation induces diaphragm muscle atrophy, which plays a key role in difficult weaning from mechanical ventilation. The signaling pathways involved in ventilator-induced diaphragm atrophy are poorly understood. The current study investigated the role of Toll-like receptor 4 signaling in the development of ventilator-induced diaphragm atrophy. METHODS: Unventilated animals were selected for control: wild-type (n = 6) and Toll-like receptor 4 deficient mice (n = 6). Mechanical ventilation (8 h): wild-type (n = 8) and Toll-like receptor 4 deficient (n = 7) mice.Myosin heavy chain content, proinflammatory cytokines, proteolytic activity of the ubiquitin-proteasome pathway, caspase-3 activity, and autophagy were measured in the diaphragm. RESULTS: Mechanical ventilation reduced myosin content by approximately 50% in diaphragms of wild-type mice (P less than 0.05). In contrast, ventilation of Toll-like receptor 4 deficient mice did not significantly affect diaphragm myosin content. Likewise, mechanical ventilation significantly increased interleukin-6 and keratinocyte-derived chemokine in the diaphragm of wild-type mice, but not in ventilated Toll-like receptor 4 deficient mice. Mechanical ventilation increased diaphragmatic muscle atrophy factor box transcription in both wild-type and Toll-like receptor 4 deficient mice. Other components of the ubiquitin-proteasome pathway and caspase-3 activity were not affected by ventilation of either wild-type mice or Toll-like receptor 4 deficient mice. Mechanical ventilation induced autophagy in diaphragms of ventilated wild-type mice, but not Toll-like receptor 4 deficient mice. CONCLUSION: Toll-like receptor 4 signaling plays an important role in the development of ventilator-induced diaphragm atrophy, most likely through increased expression of cytokines and activation of lysosomal autophagy.