We examined whether the harmful influence of nulliparity on breast cancer risk could be mediated by high mammographic density. Another possibility is that mammographic density and nulliparity act independently or perhaps synergistically on breast cancer risk. Our study population consisted of 129 cases and 517 controls who had been participants in the Nijmegen breast cancer screening programme for 10 years. Breast density was classified with a fully automated technique on digitized mammograms from the screening examination 10 years before diagnosis. Classification was based on the proportion of the breast that was composed of high density: < 5%, 5-25% or > 25%. Data on parity and potential confounders were obtained using a questionnaire, administered at the same examination. We found that nulliparae with low breast density (< 5%) were not at increased risk compared to parous women with low density: OR 1.1 (95% CI 0.2-5.8). Parous women with < 5% density formed the reference category throughout all analyses. The risks for parous women with 5-25% or > 25% density were 2.7 (95% CI 1.3-5.6) and 3.6 (95% CI 1.7-7.7) fold increased, respectively. However, when both factors were present (nulliparity and > or = 5% density), breast cancer risk was 7.1 times higher (95% CI 3.2-15.9). This could indicate that nulliparity and high breast density might work synergistically and that breast density is not just an explanatory factor in the influence of nulliparity on breast cancer risk. It is hypothesized that high breast density (reflecting fibro-glandular tissue with increased epithelial cell proliferation) is more susceptible to carcinogenic effects in the undifferentiated epithelial breast tissue of nulliparae than in the differentiated tissue of parous women. Since there were few data, no firm conclusions can be drawn. If these findings can be confirmed in a larger study population, however, they may have important implications for the prevention and early detection of breast cancer.