We have studied the resection specimens from 5 patients with idiopathic megarectum and megacolon and 10 control subjects with non-obstructing colonic cancer. Histological staining with haematoxylin and eosin, and immunocytochemical staining for protein gene product 9.5 (PGP9.5), S100 protein, vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP) and calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), and histochemical localization of NADPH diaphorase was performed. The amount of VIP and CGRP present in samples was measured using an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Patients with idiopathic megarectum and megacolon showed hypertrophy of the muscularis mucosae and muscularis externa. The architecture of the innervation as assessed by immunoreactivity for PGP9.5 and S100 protein appeared normal. There was a decrease in the density of innervation of the longitudinal muscle in rectal tissue from patients with idiopathic megarectum, with fewer VIP- and NADPH-diaphorase-containing nerves. In the muscularis mucosae and lamina propria of the rectal samples of patients with idiopathic megarectum, VIP immunoreactivity was higher and more NADPH-diaphorase-containing nerves were seen. CGRP-immunoreactive nerve fibres were only seen in the myenteric plexus. No CGRP-immunoreactive cell bodies were seen. In summary, there is an increase in VIP and nitric oxide containing fibres in the muscularis mucosae and lamina propria and a decrease in the longitudinal muscle in rectal tissue of patients with idiopathic megarectum. Both are NANC (nonadrenergic noncholinergic) inhibitory transmitters in the gut and the possible relationship of the changes in their density with gut function is discussed.