Emptying of the terminal ileum was assessed in 15 healthy humans by injecting technetium 99m-diethyltriaminopentaacetic acid into the bowel through a multilumen orocolonic tube. The subsequent arrival of isotope in the colon was quantified by gamma-scintigraphy and colonic filling curves were obtained. Studies were performed during fasting (n = 5) cnd 2.5 h after either a low residue meal (n = 5) or a meal made high in residue (n = 5) by adding 4 g of guar. The time for 50% of the isotope to reach the colon (T50) was significantly accelerated after both meals, being 72 +/- 15 min for the high residue meal and 62 +/- 8 min for the low residue meal, compared with 183 +/- 37 min (p less than 0.01) in the 5 fasting subjects. Although the addition of guar did not alter T50 significantly, it did cause a significant fall in the rate of colonic filling, implying increased isotope dilution. Delay at the ileocolonic junction, as shown by plateaus in the middle of the colonic filling curves, was uncommon. Hold-up was significant in only 2 of 10 postprandial and 2 of 5 fasting studies. Rates of ileocolonic transit could not be related to either a mean ileal motility index or the occurrence of specific ileal motor patterns immediately proximal to the ileocolonic junction. Fasting ileocolonic transit was characteristically erratic but could not be related to interdigestive migrating motor complexes, which were rarely observed in the last 60 cm of ileum. We conclude that ileocolonic transit in humans is related to the rate at which material accumulates in the ileum, being rapid postprandially (when ileal flow is high) and slow and erratic during fasting. This method yields consistent results and could be used to define further factors that influence ileocolonic inflow.