Huperzine A, a nootropic alkaloid isolated from a Chinese herb, has been proposed as one of the most promising agents to treat Alzheimer's disease. Recently, the agent was found to inhibit the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in rat cerebral cortex in addition to causing an inhibitory effect on acetylcholinesterase. In the present study, the mechanisms underlying NMDA receptor inhibition were investigated using whole-cell voltage-clamp recording in CA1 pyramidal neurons acutely dissociated from rat hippocampus. Huperzine A reversibly inhibited the NMDA-induced current (IC(50)=126 microM, Hill coefficient=0.92), whereas it had no effect on the current induced by alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole propionate or kainate. The effect was non-competitive, and showed neither 'voltage-dependency', nor 'use-dependency'. The IC(50) values of huperzine A were neither altered by changing the concentrations of glycine (2-0.2 microM) and pH (7.4-6.7) in the external solution, nor by addition of Zn(2+) (5 microM) and dithiothreitol (5 mM) to the external solution. However, addition of spermine (200 microM) to the external solution caused a parallel shift to the right of the huperzine A concentration-response curve. From these we suggest that huperzine A acts as a non-competitive antagonist of the NMDA receptors, via a competitive interaction with one of the polyamine binding sites. The potential relevance of NMDA receptor antagonist activity of huperzine A to the treatment of Alzheimer's disease is discussed.