The present study was designed to investigate inflammation-induced changes in smooth muscle responses to acetylcholine and the tachykinins that may contribute to the abnormal motility associated with inflammatory bowel disease. Colitis was induced in male Sprague-Dawley rats by intrarectal administration of trinitrobenzenesulphonic acid in ethanol. After either 4 h (acute) or 7 days (chronic) the distal colon was taken for in vitro measurement of smooth muscle tension and histological assessment. Acute colitis featured injury and neutrophilic infiltration confined to the mucosa while chronic inflammation showed marked injury, lymphocytic infiltration and muscle thickening. Acute inflammation increased responses to substance P and acetylcholine but decreased responses to neurokinin A. The enhanced response to substance P was dependent on nerves, while the decreased response to neurokinin A reflected a reduction in activity at the level of the smooth muscle. In the saline group, there was evidence of cholinergic interaction with substance P, but not neurokinin A. Substance P modulation of cholinergic nerves was absent in acute inflammation. Responses to all neurotransmitters were decreased in the chronic stage. These data demonstrate progressive changes in the smooth muscle function during acute and chronic colitis that may contribute to the abnormal motility associated with inflammatory bowel disease.