Cholecystokinin-8 (CCK-8) causes exocrine pancreatic hypertrophy and hyperplasia. High doses of the CCK analogue cerulein causes necrosis and an inflammatory response in the pancreas. We have studied the pancreatic growth response in rats after administration of CCK-8 for 3 days, given either intermittently (20-80 microg/kg) twice a day, or continuously (2.4-48 microg/kg per 24 h). Plasma CCK-8 levels, pancreatic wet weight, water, protein and DNA contents and the pancreatic caspase-3 activity were measured. Cell proliferation was visualized by [3H]thymidine incorporation and apoptosis by TUNEL reaction. Continuous administration of CCK-8 dose-dependently increased the plasma CCK levels, the pancreatic wet weight, protein and DNA contents as well as thymidine labeling index, apoptotic index and caspase-3 activity. Intermittent injections of CCK-8 caused transient raises in plasma CCK, increased apoptotic index and caspase-3 activity, a dose-dependent increase in thymidine labeling but caused a dose-dependent reduction of pancreatic wet weight, protein, and DNA contents. It is concluded that CCK-8 causes both increased proliferation and apoptosis in the pancreas. In case of continuous administration of CCK-8, the proliferation outweighs the apoptosis causing hyperplasia but in the case of intermittent administration the opposite effect is seen.