Chronic cyclosporine (CsA) nephrotoxicity is a major complication of solid organ transplantation, and is characterized histologically by striped tubulointerstitial fibrosis, tubular atrophy, and hyalinization of the afferent arteriole, a highly specific finding in cyclosporine injury. The salt-depleted rat model of chronic cyclosporine nephropathy mimics these lesions in humans. We conducted sequential studies of this model in groups of pair fed rats (N = 6) treated with CsA (15 mg/kg, s.q.) or an equivalent dose of olive oil. Proliferation of tubular and interstitial cells was documented early in the medulla by day 5 (3.2 +/- 2.1 vs. 0.81 +/- 0.4 cells/HPF in CsA vs. control, P < 0.02), and was maximal in areas of interstitial fibrosis by day 35 (7.9 +/- 3.7 vs. 0.52 +/- 0.2 cells/HPF in CsA vs. control, P < 0.005). The interstitial fibrosis was associated with a significant macrophage influx by day 35 (13.9 +/- 3.5 vs. 1.5 +/- 0.32 cells/HPF, CsA vs. control, P < 0.005), which correlated with increased cortical tubular staining for the macrophage adhesion protein, osteopontin. Elevated serum creatinine correlated with interstitial fibrosis at day 35 (0.85 +/- 0.11 vs. 0.40 +/- 0.03 mg/dl Cr, CsA vs. control, P < 0.005) by linear regression (r = 0.9, P < 0.05). Medullary proliferation and interstitial fibrosis correlated with decreased tubular concentrating ability, and higher urinary volume. Cortical interstitial fibrosis was maximal at day 35 and was associated with an increase in type I and type IV collagen deposition, while tubular injury was associated with increased vimentin expression. Tubular interstitial cells also expressed increased vimentin early in the medulla (day 10) and later in the cortex. Both groups remained normotensive despite significantly elevated juxtaglomerular (JG) apparatus renin expression in CsA treated animals, implicating the intrarenal-renal renin-angiotensin system in this disease. We conclude that cyclosporine nephrotoxicity is associated with early tubular and interstitial cell proliferation, and a significant macrophage influx that precedes the development of cortical interstitial fibrosis and afferent arteriolar hyalinosis. These early cellular changes correlate with functional abnormalities including decreased creatinine clearance (CCr) and decreased medullary concentrating ability, which stabilized despite progressive fibrosis. These cellular events may be important in the pathogenesis of chronic CsA nephrotoxicity.