The role of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in Pavlovian fear conditioning was examined using the NMDA antagonist DL-2-amino-5-phosphonovaleric acid (APV). Either APV (5 micrograms/rat) or saline was administered before the training phase, the testing phase, or both. APV completely blocked acquisition but not expression of fear conditioning. The L enantiomer of APV did not affect the acquisition of conditional fear. To separate encoding from consolidation processes, APV was administered either before or immediately after the footshock unconditional stimulus (US) during the training phase. The results indicate that APV must be present during the US to produce its effects on fear conditioning. The behavioral effect of the drug is not due to analgesic action because APV did not alter pain sensitivity. The data suggest that NMDA receptors are critical for the acquisition but not expression of fear conditioning. These effects on fear conditioning are parallel to the in vitro effects of APV on the acquisition but not expression of long-term potentiation (LTP) and suggest that endogenously generated NMDA-dependent LTP participates in the neural plasticity underlying fear conditioning.