BACKGROUND: Although delayed gastric emptying is often found in functional dyspepsia, a causal role for delayed emptying in inducing symptoms has not been demonstrated. AIM: To investigate the influence of delaying gastric emptying rate in healthy volunteers on the occurrence of meal-related symptoms. METHODS: Fourteen healthy subjects (six men, mean age 23 +/- 1) underwent gastric emptying studies twice using the 14C octanoic acid and 13C glycin breath test after pre-treatment with saline or sumatriptan 6 mg s.c. Breath samples were taken before meal and at 15-min intervals for a period of 360 min postprandially. At each breath sampling, the subject was asked to grade the intensity (0-6) of four dyspeptic symptoms. RESULTS: Sumatriptan pre-treatment significantly delayed solid but not liquid gastric emptying (t1/2 respectively 159 +/- 11 vs. 112 +/- 9 min, P < 0.005 and 134 +/- 11 vs. 116 +/- 12 min, N.S.). Sumatriptan significantly decreased the mean cumulative symptom score (21.3 +/- 5.5 vs. 8.0 +/- 2.6, P = 0.01), as well as scores for each individual symptom. CONCLUSION: A moderate delay in gastric emptying in health is not associated with an increase of meal-related symptoms. This observation argues against a causal role for delayed gastric emptying in the pathogenesis of dyspeptic symptoms.