Increased levels of rheumatoid factors (RF) have been observed in the serum of Crohn's disease but not ulcerative colitis patients, and have been proposed to relate to an increased state of intestinal lymphocyte activation. We have therefore examined the spontaneous in vitro secretion of RF by intestinal lamina propria mononuclear cells (MNC) isolated from specimens from control and inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis) patients. Normal intestinal lamina propria MNC spontaneously secrete rheumatoid factors of different isotypes during 14 days of in vitro culture (9.7 ng/ml IgA RF, 11.6 ng/ml IgM RF and 64.6 ng/ml IgA anti-Fc (IgC)). In matched studies intestinal MNC isolated from normal large bowel exhibited significantly greater levels of RF synthesis and secretion in vitro than normal small bowel intestinal MNC. A large increase in spontaneous RF secretion was observed from Crohn's disease intestinal MNC (21.4 ng/ml IgA RF, 21.4 ng/ml IgM RF, and 108.15 ng/ml IgA anti-Fc(IgG)), when compared with normal controls. The amount of RF secreted was dependent on the amount of inflammatory activity of the bowel specimens, from which the MNC were isolated (198.3 ng/ml of IgA anti-Fc(IgG) from involved versus 50.0 ng/ml from matched non-involved tissue). Ulcerative colitis MNC released decreased amounts of RF (7.1 ng/ml IgA RF, 6.2 ng/ml IgM RF, and 42.3 ng/ml IgA anti-Fc(IgG)). These observations using isolated intestinal MNC may explain the findings of RF changes in the sera of inflammatory bowel disease patients. Our observations support the hypothesis of a heightened state of activation in normal intestinal lamina propria MNC, which is further increased in active Crohn's disease. The dissimilarities observed between Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis may indicate fundamental differences in disease pathophysiology and will lead to further studies exploring intestinal immunoregulatory properties of RF.