We investigated the cause-and-effect relationship between plasma motilin levels and migrating myoelectric complexes (MMCs). Each dog was implanted with a set of eight bipolar electrodes on the small intestine. Premature phase IIIs were initiated by morphine bolus injections. Plasma samples were assayed for motilin and gastrin. All spontaneous and morphine-initiated phase IIIs were associated with peaks of plasma motilin, which always occurred after phase IIIs had started in the proximal duodenum. The plasma motilin level decreased consistently during phase I and started to increase again only after phase II had started in the duodenum. Either a meal or somatostatin infusion disrupted MMC cycling, but morphine boluses overcame this disruption and initiated phase IIIs that propagated distally. The phase IIIs thus initiated were associated with peaks in plasma motilin levels. In contrast, bolus injections of motilin did not initiate phase IIIs during the fed state or during somatostatin infusion. Our findings suggest that endogenous motilin does not initiate spontaneous MMCs. Instead, MMC contractions release motilin. The physiological role of motilin, thus released, may be to act as an endocrine agent to coordinate secretory and motor events with the start of phase III activity in the upper small intestine.