Motor abnormalities of the small bowel that occur only during the waking state have been reported in the irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), suggesting that central nervous system arousal is a necessary condition for expression of the disorder and that it may reflect inappropriate brain-gut interaction. This possible relationship was explored further by synchronous polysomnography and recording of upper small bowel motility in six healthy subjects and six patients with IBS. During sleep, there was no difference in the patterns of intestinal motility between the two groups. There was no difference between the rapid eye movement (REM) latency or number of REM episodes, but the proportion of REM sleep was markedly increased (36.5% +/- 5.7% vs. 18.2% +/- 5.7%; P less than 0.01) in the IBS group, although the duration of sleep was similar (468 +/- 13 minutes in IBS vs. 444 +/- 10 minutes in controls; P greater than 0.1). Sleep apnea was detected in three of six patients with IBS but was not seen in controls. The data are consistent with the model of IBS as a disorder of brain-gut interaction.