Humans exposed to excess levels of manganese (Mn(2+)) express psychiatric problems and deficits in attention and learning and memory. However, there is a paucity of knowledge on molecular mechanisms by which Mn(2+) produces such effects. We now report that Mn(2+) is a potent inhibitor of [(3)H]-MK-801 binding to the NMDA receptor channel in rat neuronal membrane preparations. The inhibition of [(3)H]-MK-801 to the NMDA receptor channel by Mn(2+) was activity-dependent since Mn(2+) was a more potent inhibitor in the presence of the NMDA receptor co-agonists glutamate and glycine (K(i)=35.9+/-3.1 microM) than in their absence (K(i)=157.1+/-6.5 microM). We also show that Mn(2+) is a NMDA receptor channel blocker since its inhibition of [(3)H]-MK-801 binding to the NMDA receptor channel is competitive in nature. That is, Mn(2+) significantly increased the affinity constant (K(d)) with no significant effect on the maximal number of [(3)H]-MK-801 binding sites (B(max)). Under stimulating conditions, Mn(2+) was equipotent in inhibiting [(3)H]-MK-801 binding to NMDA receptors expressed in neuronal membrane preparations from different brain regions. However, under basal, non-stimulated conditions, Mn(2+) was more potent in inhibiting NMDA receptors in the cerebellum than other brain regions. We have previously shown that chronic Mn(2+) exposure in non-human primates increases Cu(2+), but not zinc or iron concentrations in the basal ganglia [Guilarte TR, Chen M-K, McGlothan JL, Verina T, Wong DF, Zhou Y, Alexander M, Rohde CA, Syversen T, Decamp E, Koser AJ, Fritz S, Gonczi H, Anderson DW, Schneider JS. Nigrostriatal dopamine system dysfunction and subtle motor deficits in manganese-exposed non-human primates. Exp Neurol 2006a;202:381-90]. Therefore, we also tested the inhibitory effects of Cu(2+) on [(3)H]-MK-801 binding to the NMDA receptor channel. The data shows that Cu(2+) in the presence of glutamate and glycine is a more potent inhibitor of the NMDA receptor than Mn(2+). Our findings suggest that the inhibitory effect of Mn(2+) and/or Cu(2+) on the NMDA receptor may produce a deficit in glutamatergic transmission in the brain of individuals exposed to excess levels of Mn(2+) and produce neurological dysfunction.