Estradiol alters cognitive function and lowers the threshold for seizures in women and laboratory animals. Both of these activities are modulated by the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate in the hippocampus. To assess the hypothesis that estradiol increases the sensitivity of the hippocampus to glutamate activation by increasing glutamate binding sites, the densities of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) agonist sites (determined by NMDA displaced glutamate), competitive antagonist sites (CGP 39653), noncompetitive antagonist sites (MK801) as well as the non-NMDA glutamate receptors for kainate and AMPA (using kainate and CNQX, respectively) were measured using autoradiographic procedures. Two days of estradiol treatment increased the density of NMDA agonist, but not of competitive nor noncompetitive NMDA antagonist binding sites exclusively in the CA1 region of the hippocampus. The density of noncompetitive NMDA antagonist sites, however, was decreased in the dentate gyrus by estradiol treatment. Ovarian steroids had no effect on the density of kainate or AMPA receptors in any region of the hippocampus examined. These data indicate that the agonist and antagonist binding sites on the NMDA receptor/ion channel complex are regulated independently by an as yet unidentified mechanism, and that this regulation exhibits regional specificity in the hippocampus. The increase in NMDA agonist sites with ovarian hormone treatment should result in an increase in the sensitivity of the hippocampus to glutamate activation which may mediate some of the effects of estradiol on learning and epileptic seizure activity.