N-Methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA)-type glutamate receptors play important roles at developing synapses and in activity-dependent synaptic plasticity. Recent studies in Aplysia suggest that NMDA-like receptors may contribute to some forms of plasticity of sensorimotor synapses accompanying associative learning. We examined at various times after plating neurons in culture the contribution of NMDA- and alpha-amino-3 hydroxy-5 methyl-4 isoxazole proprionic acid (AMPA)-like glutamate receptors to responses evoked in motor cell L7 either by action potentials in sensory neurons (SNs) or by focal applications of glutamate. We found that (D,L)-2-amino-5-phosphopentoic acid-sensitive receptors contributed significantly to postsynaptic responses in 1-day cultures but contributed little in the same cultures on day 4. By contrast, postsynaptic responses on day 4 increased significantly in amplitude by the addition of functional 6-cyano-7 nitroquinoxaline-2,3-dione- or 1-(4-aminophenyl)-4-methyl-7,8-methylendioxy-5H-2,3-benzodiazepine hydrochloride-sensitive receptors. Receptors with NMDA-like properties are detected on day 1 only at sites on L7 apposed to SN varicosities, and are not detected on L7 cultured alone. The results indicate that changes in expression and distribution of functional receptors on L7 accompany the formation and maturation of SN synapses. Signals from the SN appear to trigger expression and clustering of functional NMDA-like receptors at sites contacted by presynaptic structures capable of transmitter release. With time, functional AMPA-like receptors are added to these sites enhancing synaptic efficacy. The results are consistent with the idea that the expression and sequential clustering of NMDA- and AMPA-type receptors may be essential for the formation and maturation of central synapses.