Gastric emptying (GE) may be driven by tonic contraction of the stomach ('pressure pump') or antral contraction waves (ACW) ('peristaltic pump'). The mechanism underlying GE was studied by contrasting the effects of clonidine (alpha(2)-adrenergic agonist) and sumatriptan (5-HT(1) agonist) on gastric function. Magnetic resonance imaging provided non-invasive assessment of gastric volume responses, ACW and GE in nine healthy volunteers. Investigations were performed in the right decubitus position after ingestion of 500 mL of 10% glucose (200 kcal) under placebo [0.9% NaCl intravenous (IV) and subcutaneous (SC)], clonidine [0.01 mg min(-1) IV, max 0.1 mg (placebo SC)] or sumatriptan [6 mg SC (placebo IV)]. Total gastric volume (TGV) and gastric content volume (GCV) were assessed every 5 min for 90 min, interspersed with dynamic scan sequences to measure ACW activity. During gastric filling, TGV increased with GCV indicating that meal volume dictates initial relaxation. Gastric contents volume continued to increase over the early postprandial period due to gastric secretion surpassing initial gastric emptying. Clonidine diminished this early increase in GCV, reduced gastric relaxation, decreased ACW frequency compared with placebo. Gastric emptying (GE) rate increased. Sumatriptan had no effect on initial GCV, but prolonged gastric relaxation and disrupted ACW activity. Gastric emptying was delayed. There was a negative correlation between gastric relaxation and GE rate (r(2 )=49%, P < 0.001), whereas the association between ACW frequency and GE rate was inconsistent and weak (r2=15%, P = 0.05). These findings support the hypothesis that nutrient liquid emptying is primarily driven by the 'pressure pump' mechanism.