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Celiac disease develops gradually from lymphocytosis, crypt hyperplasia and minor villous atrophy to overt villous atrophy. It IS NOT known how such minor mucosal changes predict eventual celiac disease. The aim of this study was to evaluate the role of intraepithelial lymphocytosis and marginally decreased villous height/crypt depth ratio in the development of overt villous atrophy in a long-term follow-up.The authors evaluated 980 small bowel biopsies of children who had previously been studied and found to be histologically negative for celiac disease between 1976 and 1992. Villous height/crypt depth ratio and the number of intraepithelial lymphocytes were measured in these initial biopsies. Cases with slight biopsy changes were identified for further study and sex and age matched subjects with normal biopsies from same group were selected as controls. They all were asked to submit serum samples for gliadin, endomysial and tissue transglutaminase antibodies 8 to 28 years after the initial biopsy. Those with positive screening tests were asked to undergo endoscopy and small intestinal biopsy.236 cases with slight changes were identified, and 236 with normal mucosa served as controls; 76 cases and 68 controls participated in the follow-up study. Ten individuals had positive screening test results. Two new celiac disease patients, one in each group, were found. Four patients in the case group had been diagnosed with celiac disease by routine procedures during the follow-up. Thus, five cases and one control had developed celiac disease.Small bowel mucosal lymphocytosis or slight reduction in villous height/crypt depth ratio are common findings in patients with suspicion of celiac disease. These findings alone are poor predictors of celiac disease.