BACKGROUND: The esophageal tight junction is responsible for the paracellular sealing of the epithelium. Alteration of the expression of tight-junction proteins plays crucial roles in the pathogenesis of some human diseases. The aim of this study was to investigate the distribution and expression pattern of tight-junction proteins in the esophageal mucosa of control rats and rats with reflux esophagitis. METHODS: Chronic acid reflux esophagitis was experimentally induced by operation in rats. The animals were killed on days 7 and 14 after the operation. The thickness of the mucosa and the 5-bromo-2-deoxyuridine (BrdU) labeling index were assessed. The expression pattern of the tight-junction proteins claudin 1-4 and occludin in the esophageal mucosa was investigated by immunofluorescence staining and Western blotting in the controls and esophagitis rats. RESULTS: In the esophagitis model, the thickness and BrdU labeling index increased with time. In control rats, claudin-1, -3, and -4 were localized on the cellular membranes of esophageal epithelial cells, mainly in the spinous and granular layers, while claudin-2 was not detected in any layer. Occludin was seen on the cellular membranes in all esophageal mucosal layers. In the esophagitis rats, the expression of claudin-1 was increased both in the plasma membrane and in the cytoplasm around the erosion in the spinous and granular layers. The expression of claudin-4 and occludin shifted to the cytoplasm from the plasma membrane in the spinous and granular layers. In contrast, the expression of claudin-3 was decreased in the spinous and granular layers. CONCLUSIONS: The localization and the expression patterns of tight-junction proteins were different in the controls and the rat esophagitis model. The expression of claudin-3 in the esophageal mucosa was decreased, while that of claudin-1 was increased. It is postulated that these alterations in tight-junction proteins most likely increase the permeability of the esophageal the epithelium, thereby impairing the defense mechanism of this epithelium.