BACKGROUND & AIMS: Small intestinal permeability is increased in a proportion of patients with Crohn's disease (CD) and a subset of their healthy relatives. A primary permeability defect was postulated in the pathogenesis of the disease. The aim of this study was to identify a possible genetic pattern in the distribution of CD and/or abnormal permeability. METHODS: Differential urinary excretion of lactulose and mannitol (L/ M) in complete CD families was determined. Controls included healthy families and families with ulcerative colitis. Pedigrees were used to compare the distribution of CD and/or increased permeability. RESULTS: The L/M was significantly increased in patients with CD. Seventeen of 67 first-degree relatives (25%) had a ratio greater than the upper limit (P95 = 0.0170). Permeability results of CD families showed a highly significant familial aggregation. The lack of a genetic pattern in relation with CD and occurrence of disturbed permeability especially within generation, points toward a shared environmental factor. Five of 14 healthy spouses (36%) of patients with CD had also an increased permeability, and prevalence of increased permeability was not higher in families with known familial occurrence (P = 0.85). CONCLUSIONS: This large family study confirms an increased permeability in a subset of healthy relatives of patients with CD. However, the absence of a typical family pattern and the high prevalence in spouses is in favor of a common nongenetic factor or a subclinical disease manifestation.