We examined the effect of vasoactive intestinal peptide, substance P, and somatostatin on concanavalin A (1 microgram/ml)-induced lymphocyte proliferation and immunoglobulin (IgA, IgM, and IgG) synthesis by cells from spleens, Peyer's patches, and mesenteric lymph nodes. These neuropeptides (10(-7) to 10(-12) M) modulated immune responses in a dose-dependent manner. For a comparative study, neuropeptides were used at 10(-8) M concentration. Both vasoactive intestinal peptide and somatostatin significantly decreased DNA synthesis (30 to 50%), whereas substance P increased synthesis (40%) in lymphocytes from all organs tested. IgA synthesis was significantly altered by all of the neuropeptides tested, whereas IgM synthesis was less affected and IgG synthesis was virtually unchanged. Somatostatin inhibited IgA (20 to 50%) and IgM (10 to 30%) synthesis in lymphocytes from all three organs. Substance P increased IgA synthesis in mesenteric lymph nodes (50%), spleens (70%), and Peyer's patches (300%). It also increased IgM synthesis in Peyer's patches (20%) and spleens (30%), but was without effect on IgM synthesis in mesenteric lymph nodes. Vasoactive intestinal peptide increased the IgA response in mesenteric lymph nodes (20%) and spleens (30%), but inhibited IgA synthesis in lymphocytes from Peyer's patches (60%). Interestingly, in Peyer's patches, IgM synthesis was increased by vasoactive intestinal peptide (80%), whereas it was unchanged in mesenteric lymph nodes and spleen. Thus, not only did these neuropeptides have different effects on the production of different immunoglobulin isotypes, but their effect was also organ-specific. Because neuropeptides which are abundant in the intestine can modulate IgA and other immunoglobulin synthesis in vitro, they may play a significant regulatory role in mucosal immune responses in vivo.