Hyperstimulation with cholecystokinin analogue cerulein induces a mild edematous pancreatitis in rats. There is evidence for a diminished energy metabolism of acinar cells in this experimental model. The aim of this study was to demonstrate permeability transition of the mitochondrial inner membrane as an early change in mitochondrial function and morphology. As functional parameters, the respiration and membrane potential of mitochondria isolated from control and cerulein-treated animals were measured, and changes in volume and morphology were investigated by swelling experiments and electron microscopy. Five hours after the first injection of cerulein, the leak respiration was nearly doubled and the resting membrane potential was decreased by about 17 mV. These alterations were reversed by extramitochondrial ADP or did not occur when cyclosporin A was added to the mitochondrial incubation. A considerable portion of the mitochondria isolated from cerulein-treated animals was swollen and showed dramatic changes in morphology such as a wrinkled outer membrane and the loss of a distinct cristae structure. These data provide evidence for the opening of the mitochondrial permeability transition pore at an early stage of cerulein induced pancreatitis. This suggests that the permeability transition is an initiating event for lysis of individual mitochondria and the initiation of apoptosis and/or necrosis, as had been shown to occur in this experimental model.