Sodium caprate (C10), a medium chain fatty acid, is used clinically to enhance rectal absorption of the low molecular weight (MW) drug ampicillin. The main aim of this study was to investigate whether C10 also enhances the permeability of high MW model drugs in a model of the intestinal epithelium. The second aim was to present visual evidence of the route of enhanced transport across the epithelial cell layer. The studies were performed in Caco-2 monolayers cultured on permeable supports. The effects of non-toxic concentrations (< or = 13 mM) of C10 on drug transport across the monolayers was studied using monodisperse 14C-polyethylene glycols (MW 238-502; 14C-PEGs), 125I-Arg5-vasopressin (MW 1,208), 125I-insulin (MW 6,000) and FITC-labelled dextrans (MW 4,400 and 19,600; FD4 and FD20 respectively) as model drugs. Electron and confocal laser scanning microscopy were used to demonstrate transport routes across the epithelium. 10 mM C10 increased the permeability of all 14C-PEGs to approximately the same extent. 13 mM C10 increased the permeability of 125I-Arg8-vasopressin 10-fold. Only small increases in FD4 and FD20 permeabilities were observed. After C10 exposure, both tight junctions with normal morphology and those with dilatations showed an increased permeability to ruthenium red, indicating that C10 enhanced the paracellular transport of molecules with a MW < 1,000. Confocal microscopy showed that C10 increased the transport of FD4 and FD20 by the paracellular route. In conclusion, non-toxic concentrations of C10 can be used to enhance the permeability of drugs of MW up to approximately 1,200. Enhancement of the absorption of molecules larger than 4,000 is quantitatively insignificant. The enhanced permeability occurred via the paracellular pathway.