Normal volunteers (n = 6), patients with untreated celiac disease and subtotal villous atrophy (n = 6), patients with nonresponsive celiac disease (n = 2), and patients with celiac disease on a gluten-free diet with a virtually normal biopsy specimen (n = 6) drank a liquid fat meal after an overnight fast. Gallbladder emptying was monitored by using 99mTc-eHIDA, and blood samples were taken for cholecystokinin estimation by radioimmunoassay after high-performance liquid chromatography. The half-times of gallbladder emptying were 20.4 +/- 2.9 min (mean +/- SEM) for normals and 22.1 +/- 2.8 min in treated patients with celiac disease (NS). In patients with untreated celiac disease half-times were 154.3 +/- 10.3 min (p less than 0.02 vs. normals and treated patients with celiac disease), and in 2 nonresponsive patients, half-times were 40.7 and 37.3 min. Integrated plasma cholecystokinin responses were 473 +/- 87 and 436 +/- 137 pmol X L-1 X 30 min-1 in normals and treated patients with celiac disease (NS). In untreated patients with celiac disease values were 16 +/- 9 pmol X L-1 X 30 min-1 (p less than 0.001 vs. normals and treated patients with celiac disease), and in nonresponsive patients values were 442 and 322 pmol X L-1 X 30 min-1. In 2 patients studied before and during gluten-free diet half-times for gallbladder emptying changed from 168.9 and 302.4 min to 20.1 and 23.4 min, and cholecystokinin responses changed from 0 and 45 to 623 and 298 pmol X L-1 X 30 min-1. Cholecystokinin immunoreactivity cochromatographing with cholecystokinin-octapeptide was responsible for 50%-60% of circulating cholecystokinin in normals and in treated patients but the small amount of cholecystokinin that was released in untreated patients with celiac disease cochromatographed with cholecystokinin-33/39. We conclude that there is a reversible defect of gallbladder emptying and cholecystokinin release in celiac disease.