The inherent variability of symptoms and motor abnormalities in patients with the irritable bowel syndrome has hampered the demonstration of motor abnormalities that could underlie symptoms. The aim in the current study was to evaluate whether altered regional capacitance or transit of solid residue through the unprepared human gut were factors in the diarrhea of patients with the irritable bowel syndrome. In 10 such patients and in 5 healthy controls, gastric and small bowel transits were evaluated scintigraphically by means of a mixed meal containing 99mTc-labeled resin pellets. Regional colonic transit was quantitated by 111In-labeled pellets delivered to the ileocecal region by a pH-sensitive, methacrylate-coated capsule. Symptomatic patients did not have significantly altered gastric or small bowel transits, but colonic transit was accelerated in 7 of 10 persons with the irritable bowel syndrome (P less than 0.02), in the proximal colon of five patients and in the left colon of two patients. The 24-hour stool weight was positively correlated with the rate at which solid residue emptied from the ascending and transverse colons (r = 0.78; P less than 0.01). There was also an inverse relationship between emptying rates and maximal volumes accommodated by the proximal colon (r = -0.58; P less than 0.05), although the maximum volume of the proximal colon was not significantly different in patients and healthy subjects. Thus, accelerated transit through the proximal colon is a factor in the pathophysiology of the irritable bowel syndrome and influences the stool weight of such patients. The capacitance of the proximal colon presumably influences its storage capacity and, hence, the rate at which it empties.