Ultraviolet (UV) irradiation is one of the significant risk factors in the genesis of cataracts. Pathogenetically, the process can be triggered by the intraocular generation of various reactive species of oxygen that are well known to be initiated by the penetration of light, especially of the UV frequencies. The contribution of UV exposure in the etiology of this disease is likely to increase further due to ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere. The present studies were undertaken to examine if the UV effects can be attenuated with the xanthine-based alkaloids primarily present in tea and coffee. We have examined this possibility by in vitro lens culture studies with caffeine. As expected, mice lenses incubated in Tyrode solution exposed to UV at 302 nm are physiologically damaged, as evidenced by the inhibition of the active transport of (86)Rb(+), an ion acting as a surrogate of the K(+). There was a simultaneous decrease in the levels of adenosine triphosphate and glutathione. The addition of caffeine to the medium prevented such deleterious effects. That caffeine and perhaps other xanthinoids have a protective effect against cataract formation induced by UV has hence been demonstrated for the first time.