A structure-based search and screen of our compound library identified N-(2-phenoxyethyl)-4-benzylpiperidine (8) as a novel N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist that has high selectivity for the NR1/2B subunit combination (IC(50) = 0.63 microM). We report on the optimization of this lead compound in terms of potency, side effect liability, and in vivo activity. Potency was assayed by electrical recordings in Xenopus oocytes expressing cloned rat NMDA receptors. Side effect liability was assessed by measuring affinity for alpha(1)-adrenergic receptors and inhibition of neuronal K(+) channels. Central bioavailability was gauged indirectly by determining anticonvulsant activity in a mouse maximal electroshock (MES) assay. Making progressive modifications to 8, a hydroxyl substituent on the phenyl ring para to the oxyethyl tether (10a) resulted in a approximately 25-fold increase in NR1A/2B potency (IC(50) = 0.025 microM). p-Methyl substitution on the benzyl ring (10b) produced a approximately 3-fold increase in MES activity (ED(50) = 0.7 mg/kg iv). Introduction of a second hydroxyl group into the C-4 position on the piperidine ring (10e) resulted in a substantial decrease in affinity for alpha(1) receptors and reduction in inhibition of K(+) channels with only a modest decrease in NR1A/2B and MES potencies. Among the compounds described, 10e (4-hydroxy-N-[2-(4-hydroxyphenoxy)ethyl]-4-(4-methylbenzyl)piperid ine, Co 101244/PD 174494) had the optimum pharmacological profile and was selected for further biological evaluation.