Antisense oligodeoxynucleotides were used to determine whether alterations in the expression of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor subunit mRNA are responsible for developmental changes in the sensitivity of receptors to agonists and antagonists. Xenopus laevis oocytes were injected with mRNA prepared from neonatal and adult rat cerebral cortex, and the effects of agonists and antagonists were determined under voltage-clamp conditions. Glycine-site antagonists like 7-chlorokynurenate and glutamate-site antagonists like CGP-39653 were more potent at NMDA receptors expressed from mRNA from adult rat cerebral cortex than those expressed from mRNA from 1-day-old rat. NMDA receptors from 1-day-old rat cerebral cortex were more sensitive to activation by glycine than were receptors from adult rat cerebral cortex. 7-Chlorokynurenate and CGP-39653 were more potent inhibitors of responses seen with heteromeric NR1/NR2A receptors than with NR1/ NR2B receptors. Conversely, heteromeric NR1/NR2B receptors were more sensitive to activation by glycine than were NR1/NR2A receptors. We previously described a delay in the expression of the NR2A subunit in developing rat brain. Anti-sense oligodeoxynucleotides were used to determine whether the delayed expression of the NR2A subunit underlies changes in pharmacological properties observed during development. The properties of receptors seen when adult brain mRNA was coinjected with antisense oligodeoxynucleotides against the NR2A subunit were similar to those found in receptors from 1-day-old rat brain. These data suggest that changes in the sensitivity of NMDA receptors to antagonists and to glycine seen during development are a result of alterations in the expression of different species of NR2 subunit mRNA.