Two distinct forms of desensitization have been characterized for N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors. One form results from a weakening of agonist affinity when channels are activated whereas the other form of desensitization results when channels enter a long-lived nonconducting state. A weakening of glycine affinity upon NMDA receptor activation has been reported. Cyclic reaction schemes for NMDA receptor activation require that a concomitant affinity shift should be observed for glutamate agonists. In this study, measurements of peak and steady-state NMDA receptor currents yielded EC50 values for glutamate that differed by 1.9-fold, but no differences were found for another agonist, L-cysteine-S-sulfate (LCSS). Simulations show that shifts in EC50 values may be masked by significant degrees of desensitization resulting from channels entering a long-lived nonconducting state. Simulations also show that a decrease in the degree of desensitization with increasing agonist concentration is a good indicator for the existence of desensitization resulting from a weakening of agonist affinity. Both glutamate and LCSS exhibited this trend. An affinity difference of three- to eightfold between high-and low-affinity agonist-binding states was estimated from fitting of dose-response data with models containing both types of desensitization. This indicates that activation of NMDA receptors causes a reduction in both glutamate and glycine affinities.