The NMDA receptor has been widely investigated in recent years as a target for the pharmacological management of seizures, pain and a variety of neurological disorders. Its role in normal central nervous system (CNS) activity and development, as well as in the development of CNS abnormalities and neurodegeneration has also been of interest. The NMDA receptor is one of three pharmacologically distinct subtypes of ionotropic receptor channels that are sensitive to the endogenous excitatory amino acid, L-glutamate. The ontogeny of the NMDA receptor, a multiple tetrameric and heteromeric channel complex with at least six known subunits, is controlled by three gene families and varies in developmental profile with species and regional brain area. NMDA receptors play a role in excitatory synaptic transmission, in the activity-dependent synaptic plasticity underlying learning and memory, and in pre- and postnatal CNS development, including brain cell differentiation, axonal growth and degeneration of unused neurons. The results of recent studies suggest that sustained alteration of NMDA receptor activation during critical periods of development may have deleterious effects on normal CNS development and function. Neonatal rats administered the NMDA receptor antagonists 2-amino-5-phosphonovalerate (AP5) and MK-801 during the first two weeks of life develop abnormal axonal arborization in the retinal connections to the superior colliculus, interfering with normal visual responses. Results from monkey studies suggest that chronic developmental exposure to high doses of a NMDA antagonist, remacemide, has pronounced and long-lasting effects on learning. Recent findings indicate that if NMDA receptors are blocked during a specific period in neonatal life (first two weeks postnatally in the rat), massive apoptotic neurodegeneration results, due not to excitotoxic overstimulation of neurons but to deprivation of stimulation. These observations require further laboratory evidence and support in order to establish their relevance to drug-induced human neurodevelopmental concerns. It is necessary to investigate the relevance of these findings in other animal species in addition to the rat, most notably, nonhuman primates, where neuronal cytoarchitecture and development are significantly different than the rodent but more like the human.