Ulcerative colitis is characterised by impairment of the epithelial barrier and tight junction alterations resulting in increased intestinal permeability. UC is less common in smokers with smoking reported to decrease paracellular permeability. The aim of this study was thus to determine the effect of nicotine, the major constituent in cigarettes and its metabolites on the integrity of tight junctions in Caco-2 cell monolayers. The integrity of Caco-2 tight junctions was analysed by measuring the transepithelial electrical resistance (TER) and by tracing the flux of the fluorescent marker fluorescein, after treatment with various concentrations of nicotine or nicotine metabolites over 48 h. TER was significantly higher compared to the control for all concentrations of nicotine 0.01-10 M at 48 h (p < 0.001), and for 0.01 mu M (p < 0.001) and 0.1 mu M and 10 M nicotine (p < 0.01) at 12 and 24 h. The fluorescein flux results supported those of the TER assay. TER readings for all nicotine metabolites tested were also higher at 24 and 48 h only (p <= 0.01). Western blot analysis demonstrated that nicotine up-regulated the expression of the tight junction proteins occludin and claudin-l (p < 0.01). Overall, it appears that nicotine and its metabolites, at concentrations corresponding to those reported in the blood of smokers, can significantly improve tight junction integrity, and thus, decrease epithelial gut permeability. We have shown that in vitro, nicotine appears more potent than its metabolites in decreasing epithelial gut permeability. We speculate that this enhanced gut barrier may be the result of increased expression of claudin-l and occludin proteins, which are associated with the formation of tight junctions. These findings may help explain the mechanism of action of nicotine treatment and indeed smoking in reducing epithelial gut permeability. (c) 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.