The relationship between gastric motility and nausea: Gastric prokinetic agents as treatments

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Nausea is one of a cluster of symptoms described subjectively by patients with delayed gastric emptying. The mechanisms and treatments are unclear (anti-emetic drugs are not fully effective against nausea). Can nausea be relieved by stimulating gastric emptying? Physostigmine (together with atropine) has been shown experimentally to stimulate gastric motility, relieve nausea and restore normal gastric motility. Is this mimicked by gastric prokinetic drugs? The answer is complicated by mixed pharmacology. Metoclopramide increases gastric motility by activating myenteric 5-HT4 receptors but also directly inhibits vomiting via D2 and 5-HT3 receptor antagonism; relationships between increased gastric motility and relief from nausea are therefore unclear. Similarly, the D2 receptor antagonist domperidone has direct anti-emetic activity. Nevertheless, more selective 5-HT4 and motilin receptor agonists (erythromycin, directly stimulating gastric motility) inhibit vomiting in animals; low doses of erythromycin can also relieve symptoms in patients with gastroparesis. Ghrelin stimulates gastric motility and appetite mostly via vagus-dependent pathways, and inhibits vomiting in animals. To date, ghrelin receptor activation has failed to consistently improve gastric emptying or symptoms in patients with gastroparesis. We conclude that nausea can be relieved by gastric prokinetic drugs, but more clinical studies are needed using drugs with selective activity. Other mechanisms (e.g. ghrelin, vagal and central pathways, influencing a mechanistic continuum between appetite and nausea) also require exploration. These and other issues will be further explored in a forthcoming special issue of the European Journal of Pharmacology, which focusses on mechanisms of nausea and vomiting.

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