BACKGROUND AND AIMS: In liver cirrhosis, disruption of the intestinal barrier facilitates bacterial translocation and spontaneous bacterial peritonitis. Insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) is an anabolic hormone synthesised by hepatocytes that displays hepatoprotective activities and trophic effects on the intestine. The aim of this study was to investigate the effect of IGF-I on intestinal barrier function in cirrhotic rats. METHODS: In rats with carbon tetrachloride induced cirrhosis, we investigated the effect of IGF-I therapy on: (a) portal pressure; (b) intestinal histology and permeability to endotoxin and bacteria; (c) intestinal expression of cyclooxygenase 2 (COX-2) and tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), two factors that influence in a positive and negative manner, respectively, the integrity of the intestinal barrier; (d) intestinal permeability to 3H-mannitol in rats with bile duct ligation (BDL); and (e) transepithelial electrical resistance (TER) of polarised monolayers of rat small intestine epithelial cells. RESULTS: IGF-I therapy reduced liver collagen expression and portal pressure in cirrhotic rats, induced improvement in intestinal histology, and caused a reduction in bacterial translocation and endotoxaemia. These changes were associated with diminished TNF-alpha expression and elevated COX-2 levels in the intestine. IGF-I reduced intestinal permeability in BDL rats and enhanced barrier function of the monolayers of epithelial intestinal cells where lipopolysaccharide (LPS) caused a decrease in TER that was reversed by IGF-I. This effect of IGF-I was associated with upregulation of COX-2 in LPS treated enterocytes. CONCLUSIONS: IGF-I enhances intestinal barrier function and reduces endotoxaemia and bacterial translocation in cirrhotic rats. IGF-I therapy might be useful in the prevention of spontaneous bacterial peritonitis in liver cirrhosis.