The gastric cholecystokinin-B/gastrin receptor (CCK-BR) is a key regulator of enterochromaffin-like cell function and proliferation. Over the last decade, a number of small non-peptide CCK-BR "antagonists" have been discovered. Here, we demonstrate that some of these non-peptide ligands in fact possess significant ability to activate the human CCK-BR, and are, therefore, more properly categorized as partial agonists. When tested in COS-7 cells transiently expressing the recombinant human CCK-BR, saturating concentrations of the small "peptoid" ligands PD 135,158 and PD 136,450 stimulated inositol phosphate formation to 23 and 43 percent, respectively, of the maximum response induced by a considerably larger endogenous peptide agonist, cholecystokinin octapeptide. In contrast, the benzodiazepine-derived CCK-BR ligand, YM022, acted as a "true" high-affinity antagonist of cholecystokinin-induced inositol phosphate formation (pA2 = 9.69). Consistent with recent findings in animal experiments, our data reveal that small synthetic ligands have the potential to function as either CCK-BR agonists or antagonists. These dual properties of synthetic molecules must be considered when evaluating candidate drugs for human disease.