Synaptic release of glutamate results in a two component excitatory postsynaptic current (e.p.s.c.) at many vertebrate central synapses. Non-N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors mediate a component that has a rapid onset and decay while the component mediated by N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors has a slow rise-time and a decay of several hundred milliseconds, 100 times longer than the mean open time of NMDA channels. The slow decay of the NMDA-mediated e.p.s.c. could be due to residual glutamate in the synaptic cleft resulting in repeated binding and activation of NMDA receptors. However, in cultured hippocampal neurons, we find that the NMDA receptor antagonist D-2-amino-5-phosphonopentanoate has no effect on the slow e.p.s.c. when rapidly applied after activation of the synapse, suggesting that rebinding of glutamate does not occur. In addition, a brief pulse of glutamate to an outside-out membrane patch results in openings of NMDA channels that persist for hundreds of milliseconds, indicating that glutamate can remain bound for this period. These results imply that a brief pulse of glutamate in the synaptic cleft is sufficient to account for the slow e.p.s.c.