Erythromycin has been shown to act as a motilin agonist by binding to motilin receptors on gastrointestinal smooth muscle and to improve the severely impaired gastric emptying in patients with diabetic gastroparesis. To elucidate the motor pattern that accounts for this accelerated emptying, the effect of 200 mg erythromycin vs. placebo on postprandial motility of the stomach and the upper small intestine was examined in 13 normal subjects. Erythromycin significantly increased the amplitude of the antral contractions during the 2-hour postprandial study period (maximal difference in mean amplitude of distal antral contractions between erythromycin and placebo recorded from 80 to 90 minutes after meal: 123 +/- 17 vs. 44 +/- 12 mm Hg; P less than 0.005). The total number of antral contractions was not affected, but the contractions could be recorded manometrically higher up in the stomach after erythromycin than after placebo (9-12 vs. 3-6 cm above the pylorus). Antroduodenal coordination was significantly improved during the first postprandial hour, and the first normal phase 3 of the migrating motor complex, indicating the reappearance of fasting motility, occurred earlier after erythromycin than after placebo (128.3 +/- 14.3 vs. 173.4 +/- 16.1 minutes; P less than 0.05). These changes in postprandial motility induced by erythromycin may well account for its accelerating effect on gastric emptying.