Despite extensive research, the etiology of Crohn's disease remains unknown. Accumulating evidence suggests the possibility that a primary defect of intestinal barrier function may be present in Crohn's disease. In this review, the possible role of intestinal barrier defect in Crohn's disease is discussed. It has been recognized for some time that Crohn's patients have a defective intestinal epithelial barrier function manifested by an increase in intestinal permeability. Recent studies indicate that a subgroup of healthy first-degree relatives of Crohn's patients (a population at high risk for developing Crohn's disease) also have increased intestinal permeability. Additionally, this subgroup of patients have evidence of increased exposure to foreign antigens, suggesting a possible link between increase in intestinal permeability and increase in antigenic penetration. Furthermore, exacerbation of Crohn's disease is produced by agents that disrupt intestinal epithelial barrier function, while remission of active disease is induced by decreasing intestinal antigenic load. A "leaky gut" hypothesis is advanced which proposes that a preexisting disorder of intestinal permeability is responsible for the intestinal inflammation of Crohn's disease.