Two rabbits immunized with a portion of glutamate receptor (GluR) subunit GluR3 (amino acids 245-457) exhibited seizure-like behaviors, suggesting that antibodies to GluR3 may modulate neuronal excitability. Using whole-cell recording, rabbit GluR3 antisera were tested on cultured fetal mouse cortical neurons. In a subset of kainate-responsive neurons, miniperfusion of antisera and IgG evoked currents that were blocked by CNQX. Immunoreactivity to synthetic peptides prepared to subregions GluR3A (amino acids 245-274) and GluR3B (amino acids 372-395) was present in both rabbit sera. Peptide GluR3B, but not GluR3A, specifically blocked antisera- and IgG-evoked currents. Similar receptor activation and anti-GluR3 reactivity was present in sera from patients with active Rasmussen's encephalitis, an intractable pediatric epilepsy. Thus, antibodies to GluR3 define a region involved in agonist binding and specific receptor activation. These data suggest that antibodies to neuronal receptors can function as agonists and that autoantibodies to GluRs may be highly specific neurotoxicants in some neurological diseases.