Although the past few years have seen an exponential growth of compounds of potential interest for the treatment of functional gastrointestinal (GI) tract disorders, the gap that still exists between basic and clinical research is easily noticed if one considers the relative paucity of drugs that have received marketing authorisation for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Traditional efficacy outcomes in drug development for IBS include the ability of the compound to affect GI tract motility (i.e. to exert a prokinetic or an antispasmodic effect), which is thought to be of importance if a motor disorder is the underlying pathophysiological mechanism. More recently, altered visceral sensitivity to a distending stimulus has been suggested to be a key pathophysiological feature, at least in some patients, and has become a target for therapeutic interventions. However, there is now growing consensus that the primary outcome measure in the treatment of functional disorders are those that reflect overall control of the patient's symptoms (pain, diarrhoea, constipation) in everyday situations such as the clinical global improvement scales. Although, in general, guidelines on the design of treatment trials for functional GI tract disorders advise against subcategorisation of patients according to the main symptom (because of symptom instability), subcategorisation indeed makes sense especially in IBS (constipation- or diarrhoea-predominant). Compounds with a specific indication for each subpopulation of patients are now emerging. The rationale for investigations on serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine; 5-HT) receptor ligands in IBS rests mainly on the fact that serotonin, which may be released by enterochromaffin-like cells in the GI tract as well as from other sources, has a number of well documented motor effects on the GI tract and can produce hyperalgesia in several experimental models. Serotonin receptors belonging to the 5-HT3 and 5-HT4 subtype are the most extensively studied in gastroenterology, although hitherto 'orphan' receptor subtypes, such as the 5-HT7 and the 5-HT(1B/D) receptors, are now emerging. Among 5-HT3 receptor antagonists, alosetron was recently approved for the treatment of diarrhoea-predominant IBS and is an example of a compound that, at least theoretically, may act at multiple levels: by inhibiting visceral sensitivity, by increasing compliance, and by inhibiting excitatory 5-HT3 receptors located on both ascending and descending neuronal pathways involved in peristalsis. For this reason, 5-HT3 receptor antagonists may slow transit, hence the specific indication of alosetron in diarrhoea-predominant IBS. However, alosetron has been recently withdrawn by the manufacturer because of safety concerns. Hypomotility remains an attractive therapeutic target in IBS and the new generation of prokinetics includes several partial agonists at the 5-HT4 receptor, such as tegaserod (HTF-919) and prucalopride (R0-93877). In addition, preliminary evidence suggests that 5-HT4 receptors may also be involved in the modulation of visceral sensitivity. Second-generation 5-HT4 receptor agonists seem to be devoid of the QT-prolonging effects observed in some clinical circumstances with cisapride and may be more active at the colonic level. Piboserod (SB-207266A) is a 5-HT4 receptor antagonist under development for the treatment of diarrhoea-predominant IBS. Finally, interest in 5-HT7 and 5-HT(1B/D) receptor subtypes stems from the observation that the former receptors mediate smooth muscle relaxation (at least in the human colon), whereas sumatriptan (a 5-HT(1B/D) receptor agonist) can affect GI tract motility and visceral sensitivity.