Adaptive hepatic changes were investigated in rats with mild stenosis of the common bile duct and in sham-operated controls. The studies were performed 24 h and 7-12 days postoperatively. A continuous intravenous infusion of taurocholic acid at stepwise-increasing rates was performed to explore the responses to bile acid effects. During the infusion, bile flow and the outputs of bile acids, phospholipids, cholesterol, alkaline phosphatase and gamma glutamyl transpeptidase were studied. At the end of the infusion, hepatic morphometric measurements were performed. In other experimental sets, biliary excretions of horseradish peroxidase, a marker of microtubule-dependent vesicular transport in the hepatocyte, and sulphobromophthalein, a well-known organic anion model, were studied. In other rats, bile acid pool size and composition were determined by depletion of bile. The results in rats with mild stenosis maintained for 24 h showed a greater susceptibility to the toxicity of taurocholic acid, as revealed by the abrupt decrement in bile flow at high rates of infusion, and increased outputs of phospholipids and canalicular enzymes. Conversely, rats with mild stenosis maintained for 7-12 days showed decreased bile acid maximum secretory rate and biliary outputs of phospholipids and canalicular enzymes, as well as hepatocyte hypertrophy. These findings may explain the limited hepatic and systemic repercussion of experimental mild stenosis of the common bile duct and help us to understand the early stages of constriction of the common bile duct in man.