Numerous studies have shown that chitosan, a mucoadhesive polymer, is a potential enhancer for transmucosal drug delivery. To further understand the mechanisms involved in chitosan action on the mucosal barrier, the activity of chitosan on the function and structure of monolayers of intestinal epithelial cells was investigated. In Caco-2 cells, chitosan caused a reversible, time and dose-dependent decrease in transepithelial electrical resistance. The effect of chitosan on tight junctions was confirmed by an increased permeability coefficient for mannitol transport when cells were treated with 0.1-0.5% w/v chitosan solution for 60 min compared to control cells. Involvement of tight junctions was visualized by confocal scanning microscopy using occludin and ZO-1, tight junctional proteins. Following an incubation with 0.01 or 0.1% w/v chitosan, labeling of both proteins varied in localization and decreased in fluorescent intensity at the cell periphery. In addition, a focal condensation of actin was observed preferentially at areas of cell-to-cell contacts. However, after 24-h recovery, the cell structure resembled untreated control cells. Simultaneous addition of cycloheximide, a protein synthesis inhibitor, prevented full recovery. This implied that protein synthesis was required for the cells to return to baseline levels. Chitosan treatment appeared to slightly perturb the plasma membrane as assessed by an increased release of lactate dehydrogenase. However, addition of 0.5% chitosan for 60 min did not affect cell viability as shown by Trypan blue dye exclusion. These data suggest that chitosan increases cell permeability by affecting paracellular and intracellular pathways of epithelial cells, in a reversible manner.