Background: Gallbladder Na+ and H2O absorption are increased prior to gallstone formation and may promote cholesterol nucleation. Na+/H+ exchange (NHE) isoforms NHE2 and NHE3 are involved in gallbladder Na+ transport in prairie dogs. We examined whether increased gallbladder Na+ absorption observed during early gallstone formation is the result of NHE up-regulation. Materials and methods: Native gallbladder and primary cultures of gallbladder epithelial cells (GBECs) harvested from prairie dogs fed nonlithogenic (CON) or 1.2% cholesterol diet for varying lengths of time to induce cholesterol-saturated bile (PreCRYS), cholesterol crystals (CRYS), or gallstones (GS) were used. NHE activity was assessed by measuring dimethylamiloride-inhibitable 22Na+ uptake under H+ gradient in primary GBECs. HOE-694 was used to determine NHE2 and NHE3 contributions. NHE protein and mRNA expression were examined by Western and Northern blots, respectively. Results: Gallbladder total NHE activity was 25.1 ± 1.3 nmol mg protein-1 min -1 in the control and increased during gallstone formation peaking at the PreCRYS stage (98.4 ± 3.9 nmol mg protein-1 min -1). There was a shift in NHE activity from NHE2 to NHE3 as the animals progressed from no stones through the PreCRYS and CRYS stages to gallstones. The increase in NHE activity was partly caused by an increased Vmax without any change in KNam. Both NHE2 and NHE3 protein increased moderately during the PreCRYS stage without increases in mRNA expression. Conclusions: Increased gallbladder Na+ absorption observed prior to crystal formation is in part caused by an increase NHE activity which is not fully accounted for by an increase in NHE proteins and mRNA levels but may be explained by enhanced localization in the membranes and/or altered regulation of NHE. © 2005 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.