Recent reports suggesting that the actions of certain neuroenteric peptides may be mediated in part by the secretion of histamine and other mast cell contents could have important implications for gastrointestinal motility and secretion. However, evidence for a mast cell-hormonal interaction is based on studies using peritoneal or cutaneous mast cells. Because intestinal mucosal mast cells (MMC) differ functionally from peritoneal mast cells (PMC), we compared the effects of several neurotransmitters and intestinal hormones on histamine secretion from two mast cell types in the rat. MMC hyperplasia was induced in rats by infection with the nematode Nippostrongylus brasiliensis, and MMC were isolated from the small intestine by collagenase digestion. Substance P, somatostatin, vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP), neurotensin, and bradykinin had a potent secretagogue effect on (10(-7) to 10(-4)M) PMC which was temperature-, energy-, and calcium-dependent. In contrast to PMC, MMC released significant amounts of histamine only when challenged with substance P. Acetylcholine, bombesin, motilin, and pentagastrin had no secretory effect on either PMC or MMC. The differences between PMC and MMC in responsiveness to peptides could not be attributed to the MMC isolation procedure because PMC treated similarly or mixed with MMC suspensions retained their responsiveness to these stimuli. Our results extend the concept of neurocrine control of mast cell function, but indicate that mast cells from different sites have distinct profiles of responsiveness to regulatory peptides.