The N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor, a subtype of ionotropic glutamate receptors, plays an important role in the regulation of neuronal development, learning and memory, and neurodegenerative diseases. NMDA receptor blockade enhances neurogenesis in the hippocampal dentate gyrus in vivo. The effect of NMDA receptor antagonist on proliferation of neural progenitor cells, however, remains to be determined. We investigated changes in the diameter and number of neurospheres derived from the embryonic rat brain after NMDA receptor blockade. Cortical progenitor cells were isolated from gestational day 18 fetal rats according to the Percoll density gradient method. Cultured spheres expressed neural progenitor markers, musashi-1 and nestin. Immunohistochemical analysis demonstrated that cells in Dulbecco's modified Eagle medium/F12 containing 1% fetal bovine serum on day 8 differentiated to MAP-2-positive neurons and GFAP-positive astrocytes. The expression of NR1 and NR2B subunits of the NMDA receptor in neurospheres was detected. Neither brief nor sustained exposure to NMDA altered the diameter and number of neurospheres. Brief exposure to 30 microM MK-801, an NMDA receptor antagonist, decreased the diameter of neurospheres. Sustained exposure to 30 microM MK-801 decreased the diameter and number of neurospheres. Our results provide evidence that MK-801 directly decreased proliferation of neural progenitor cells.