The motilin receptor agonist erythromycin stimulates hunger and food intake through a cholinergic pathway

Am J Clin Nutr. 2016 Mar;103(3):730-7. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.115.113456. Epub 2016 Jan 27.


Background: Motilin-induced phase III contractions have been identified as a hunger signal. These phase III contractions occur as part of the migrating motor complex (MMC), a contractility pattern of the gastrointestinal tract during fasting. The mechanism involved in this association between subjective hunger feelings and gastrointestinal motility during the MMC is largely unknown, however, as is its ability to stimulate food intake.

Objectives: We sought to 1) investigate the occurrence of hunger peaks and their relation to phase III contractions, 2) evaluate whether this relation was cholinergically driven, and 3) assess the ability of the motilin receptor agonist erythromycin to induce food intake.

Design: An algorithm was developed to detect hunger peaks. The association with phase III contractions was studied in 14 healthy volunteers [50% men; mean ± SEM age: 25 ± 2 y; mean ± SEM body mass index (BMI; in kg/m(2)): 23 ± 1]. The impact of pharmacologically induced phase III contractions on the occurrence of hunger peaks and the involvement of a cholinergic pathway were assessed in 14 healthy volunteers (43% men; age: 29 ± 3 y; BMI: 23 ± 1). Last, the effect of erythromycin administration on food intake was examined in 15 healthy volunteers (40% men; age: 28 ± 3 y; BMI: 22 ± 1).

Results: The occurrence of hunger peaks and their significant association with phase III contractions was confirmed (P < 0.0001). Pharmacologically induced phase III contractions were also significantly associated with hunger peaks (P < 0.05), and this association involved a cholinergic pathway. Administering erythromycin significantly stimulated food intake compared with placebo (53% ± 13% compared with 10% ± 5%; P < 0.05).

Conclusions: Motilin-induced phase III contractions induced hunger feelings through a cholinergic pathway. Moreover, erythromycin stimulated food intake, suggesting a physiologic role of motilin as an orexigenic signal from the gastrointestinal tract. This trial was registered at as NCT02633579.

Keywords: erythromycin; food intake; hunger; migrating motor complex; motilin.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cholinergic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Eating / drug effects*
  • Erythromycin / pharmacology*
  • Fasting
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Agents
  • Humans
  • Hunger / drug effects*
  • Hunger / physiology
  • Male
  • Motilin / metabolism*
  • Muscle Contraction / drug effects
  • Myoelectric Complex, Migrating / drug effects*
  • Receptors, Gastrointestinal Hormone / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Neuropeptide / metabolism*
  • Single-Blind Method
  • Young Adult


  • Cholinergic Agents
  • Gastrointestinal Agents
  • Receptors, Gastrointestinal Hormone
  • Receptors, Neuropeptide
  • motilin receptor
  • Motilin
  • Erythromycin

Associated data