The anticonvulsant effect of felbamate (FBM) is ascribable to inhibition of N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) currents. Using electrophysiological studies in rat hippocampal neurons to examine the kinetics of FBM binding to and unbinding from the NMDA channel, we show that FBM modifies NMDA channel gating via a one-to-one binding stoichiometry and has quantitatively the same enhancement effect on NMDA and glycine binding to the NMDA channel. Moreover, the binding rates of FBM to the closed and the open/desensitized NMDA channels are 187.5 and 4.6 x 10(4) M(-1) s(-1), respectively. The unbinding rates of FBM from the closed and the open/desensitized NMDA channels are approximately 6.2 x 10(-2) and approximately 3.1 s(-1), respectively. From the binding and unbinding rate constants, apparent dissociation constants of approximately 300 and approximately 70 microM could be calculated for FBM binding to the closed and the open/desensitized NMDA channels, respectively. The slight (approximately fourfold) difference in FBM binding affinity to the closed and to the open/desensitized NMDA channels thus is composed of much larger differences in the binding and unbinding kinetics (approximately 250- and approximately 60-fold difference, respectively). These findings suggest that the effects of NMDA and glycine binding coalesce or are interrelated before or at the actual activation gate, and FBM binding seems to modulate NMDA channel gating at or after this coalescing point. Moreover, the entrance zone of the FBM binding site very likely undergoes a much larger conformational change along the gating process than that in the binding region(s) of the binding site. In other words, the FBM binding site becomes much more accessible to FBM with NMDA channel activation, although the spatial configurations of the binding ligand(s) for FBM themselves are not altered so much along the gating process.