Altered gallbladder motility could predispose to, or result from, gallstone formation and could also explain the alleged relief of biliary colic seen during bile acid therapy. Therefore, in 14 controls, 25 patients with radiolucent gallstones, and 14 patients with radiopaque gallstones, we used two techniques to measure gallbladder contraction--radionuclide imaging and real-time ultrasound--in response to one of two stimuli--a Lundh meal or intravenous cholecystokinin-octapeptide. Using the radionuclide technique, postprandial gallbladder emptying (t1/2) was prolonged (p less than 0.01) both in patients with radiopaque (26.7 +/- 3.1 min, mean +/- SEM) and radiolucent (21.7 +/- 3.1) gallstones when compared with controls (10.2 +/- 1.5). In patients with radiolucent stones, the t1/2 of gallbladder emptying became further prolonged (p less than 0.05) after 1 mo of therapy with 8-10 mg/kg body wt X day of ursodeoxycholic acid, to 32.1 +/- 4.4 min. A similar pattern of results was seen after cholecystokinin-octapeptide and also with real-time ultrasound. Thus, after both stimuli and using two independent techniques, gallbladder contraction was reduced in patients with gallstones. The slower and less complete gallbladder emptying with ursotherapy might explain the reduction in biliary colic noted during treatment.