BACKGROUND: Recent studies in animals have shown that ghrelin stimulates upper gastrointestinal motility through the vagus and enteric nervous system. The aim of the present study therefore was to simultaneously investigate the effect of administration of ghrelin on upper gastrointestinal motility and to elucidate its mode of action by measuring plasma levels of gastrointestinal hormones in humans. MATERIALS AND METHODS: Nine healthy volunteers (four males; aged 22-35 years) underwent combined antroduodenal manometry and proximal stomach barostat study on two separate occasions at least one week apart. Twenty minutes after the occurrence of phase III of the migrating motor complex (MMC), saline or ghrelin 40 mug was administered intravenously over 30 minutes in a double blind, randomised, crossover fashion. Ghrelin, motilin, pancreatic polypeptide, glucagon, and somatostatin were measured by radioimmunoassay in blood samples obtained at 15-30 minute intervals. The influence of ghrelin or saline on MMC phases, hormone levels, and intraballoon volume was compared using paired t test, ANOVA, and chi(2) testing. RESULTS: Spontaneous phase III occurred in all subjects, with a gastric origin in four. Administration of ghrelin induced a premature phase III (12 (3) minutes, p<0.001; gastric origin in nine, p<0.05), compared with saline (95 (13) minutes, gastric origin in two). Intraballoon volumes before infusion were similar (135 (13) v 119 (13) ml; NS) but ghrelin induced a longlasting decrease in intraballoon volume (184 (31) v 126 (21) ml in the first 60 minutes; p<0.05). Administration of ghrelin increased plasma levels of pancreatic polypeptide and ghrelin but motilin, somatostatin, and glucagon levels were not altered. CONCLUSIONS: In humans, administration of ghrelin induces a premature gastric phase III of the MMC, which is not mediated through release of motilin. This is accompanied by prolonged increased tone of the proximal stomach.