To test the hypothesis that there is an early stage of cholesterol gallstone formation in man characterized by symptoms of chronic cholecystitis, poor gallbladder emptying, and biliary cholesterol crystals, we studied cholecystokinin-stimulated gallbladder emptying by DISIDA scintigraphy and examined bile for cholesterol crystals in symptomatic patients with normal oral cholecystography and gallbladder sonography. Of 36 patients studied, 16 had biliary cholesterol crystals; their mean 30-min gallbladder ejection fraction was 25.9 +/- 14.8%. Among the 20 patients without crystals, the mean ejection fraction was 60.3 +/- 23.3%. Fifteen patients, 11 with crystals and four without, had cholecystectomy because of persistent symptoms. All with crystals preoperatively and three without had chronic cholecystitis histologically. One patient without crystals had normal histology. We conclude that poor gallbladder contractility, well-established as an etiologic factor in animal models of cholesterol cholelithiasis, is now linked to acalculous cholecystitis, an early stage of human cholesterol cholelithiasis.