Ginger (rhizomes of Zingiber officinale) has been shown to exert potent anti-emetic properties, but its mode of action has not yet been elucidated. Among its active constituents, -, - and -gingerol as well as -shogaol were shown in different in vivo studies to be at least partly responsible for the drug's anti-emetic properties. In an attempt to gain more insight into the mode of action of these compounds, three different in vitro models were used to investigate their effects on 5-HT(3) receptors (serotonin receptor subtype) in more detail: [(14)C]guanidinium influx into N1E-115 cells which express 5-HT(3) receptors, isotonic contractions of the isolated guinea-pig ileum and equilibrium competition binding studies using a radioactively labeled 5-HT(3) receptor antagonist ([(3)H]GR65630) (3-(5-methyl-1H-imidazol-4-yl)-1-(1-methyl-1H-indol-3-yl)-1-propanone). All four compounds inhibited the [(14)C]guanidinium influx through 5-HT(3) receptor channels as well as contractions of the guinea-pig ileum induced by SR57227A ((4-amino)-(6-chloro-2-pyridyl)l-piperidine hydrochloride), a highly selective 5-HT(3) receptor agonist. Both effects were concentration-dependent, with the following order of potency for both models: -shogaol> or =-gingerol>-gingerol> or =-gingerol. All compounds showed also weak anticholinergic and antineurokininergic activities in the guinea-pig ileum (acetylcholine and substance P are mediators of the 5-HT(3) receptor effect). The vanilloid receptor did not seem to be involved derived from experiments using capsazepine. None of the tested ginger substances, however, was able to displace [(3)H]GR65630 from its binding site (5-HT(3) receptor) neither on intact N1E-115 cells nor on the purified membranes of HEK-293 cells over-expressing the h5-HT(3) receptor. It may be concluded that -, -, -gingerol and -shogaol exert their anti-emetic effect at least partly by acting on the 5-HT(3) receptor ion-channel complex, probably by binding to a modulatory site distinct from the serotonin binding site. This may include indirect effects via receptors in the signal cascade behind the 5-HT(3) receptor channel complex such as substance P receptors and muscarinic receptors; this needs further investigation since ginger is effective against motion sickness which is cured by some vanilloids and by anticholinergics such as scopolamine.