BACKGROUND Although the effect of preoperative biliary drainage in patients with obstructive jaundice is controversial, bacterial or endotoxin translocation is one of the main postoperative problem in jaundiced patients. Failure in gut barrier functions causes bacterial translocation; homing and distribution of T lymphocytes in the intestinal lamina propria are important for gut mucosal immune defense. This study was performed to examine whether bile regulates the numbers of T lymphocyte subsets or the expression of mucosal addressin cell adhesion molecule-1 (MAdCAM-1) in experimental jaundice in rats with and without external and internal biliary drainage. METHODS Four groups of Wistar rats were used: those that received a sham operation (SHAM), common bile duct ligation (CBDL), CBDL followed by external drainage (ED), and CBDL followed by internal drainage (ID). Numbers of CD4(+) and CD8(+) T lymphocytes and MAdCAM-1-positive cells in the lamina propria were counted immunohistochemically in the specimens of jejunum and ileum of each group. Bacterial translocation was examined by culturing from the mesenteric lymph node complex isolated from rats in each group. RESULTS A significant decrease in numbers of CD4(+) and CD8(+) T lymphocytes and MAdCAM-1-positive cells in the lamina propria was seen in obstructive jaundice, although numbers of peripheral blood lymphocytes increased in comparison with the sham-operated control. The numbers of CD4(+) and CD8(+) T lymphocytes and MAdCAM-1 expression in the lamina propria did not recover to a normal level after external drainage, but did so after internal drainage. Frequencies of bacterial translocation were high in the CBDL and ED group. In contrast, bacterial translocation was not present in any animals in the SHAM group and was at a low percentage in the ID group. CONCLUSIONS Changes in the number of T lymphocytes and MAdCAM-1 expression are associated with the presence of bile in the gastrointestinal tract and are inversely correlated with the frequency of bacterial translocation induced by CBD ligation. MAdCAM-1 expression maintained by the presence of bile may regulate T-lymphocyte homing to the lamina propria in obstructive jaundice.