To determine the role of cholecystokinin and the cholinergic system in cephalic stimulation of gallbladder contraction and to compare the degree of gallbladder contraction by cephalic stimulation with postprandial gallbladder contraction, 8 healthy volunteers (4 males, 4 females, 20-65 years) underwent the following studies: sham feeding of an appetizing meal, sham feeding with intravenous atropine, and ingestion of the same meal. Gallbladder volume was measured by real-time ultrasonography and plasma cholecystokinin by a sensitive and specific radioimmunoassay using antibody T204. Gallbladder contraction in response to sham feeding, 30 +/- 4% (p = 0.0001 vs. basal), amounted to half of that seen after real feeding, 69 +/- 5% (p less than 0.0001 vs. basal). Significant dissociation between gallbladder response to sham feeding and real feeding was seen from 40 min (p less than 0.005-p = 0.0001). Atropine did not affect basal gallbladder volume but completely abolished gallbladder contraction in response to sham feeding. Neither sham feeding without nor sham feeding with atropine significantly affected plasma cholecystokinin levels. On the other hand, real feeding induced significant increases in plasma cholecystokinin from a basal level of 2.3 +/- 0.1 pM to a peak value of 5.9 +/- 0.4 pM at 40 min. It is concluded that an important cephalic phase of postprandial gallbladder contraction exists which is cholecystokinin-independent but dependent on a cholinergic mechanism.