Spasmolytic polypeptide (SP) is a member of the trefoil peptide family; gut peptides that participate in the protection and repair of the gastric mucosa. Previous studies have failed to agree on the mode of action of human SP (hSP). We investigated the effect of orally administered human SP on the protection and repair of rat gastric mucosa in an established in vivo model of damage induced by the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug aspirin (ASA). The integrity of the gastric mucosa was quantified in four ways: the temporal change in transmucosal potential difference (PD), area of macroscopic damage by planimetry, relative area of microscopic damage by histological morphometry, and the number of deep erosions per centimetre of mucosa sectioned. Human SP (200 micromol/L) administered orally before, or in combination with ASA significantly reduced the fall in PD, the area of microscopic damage, and the number of deep erosions (P < 0.05). The area of macroscopic damage was significantly reduced only in rats where hSP (200 micromol/L) was given in conjunction with ASA (P < 0.05). Human spasmolytic polypeptide (70 or 200 micromol/L) administered after ASA failed to hasten the re-establishment of PD or stimulate the repair of the gastric mucosa in the 90 min following injury (P > 0.05, compared with ASA alone). We conclude that hSP prevents gastric mucosal damage by its topical actions, probably by a rapid interaction with luminal mucins or epithelial cells, but fails to stimulate early restitution in the injured gastric mucosa.