The influence of K(+)-induced membrane depolarization and NMDA treatment on the regulation of NMDA receptor subunit (NR) expression was investigated during the development of granule cells in culture, as a follow-up of previous work on NMDA receptor activity. In spite of the increase in NMDA receptor activity elicited by these treatments (K25 or K10 + NMDA cultures), the main developmental changes in receptor mRNA levels were similar to those in untreated cells (K10) (a threefold increase in total NMDA receptor mRNA, quantitative dominance of NR1 mRNA, late expression of NR2C, and virtual absence of NR2D. However, high K+ and NMDA treatment resulted in a greater increase of NR2A mRNA levels and a retardation in the developmental changes in the relative amounts of NR2B and NR2C mRNAs. The correspondence between NMDA receptor activity and the amount of NR1 and NR2A subunit proteins was excellent, the rank order being K25 > K10 + NMDA > K10 at 9 days in vitro. Because the increase in subunit mRNA was not always paralleled by an increase in subunit protein, the control of NMDA receptor expression involves critically, in addition to gene transcription, regulation of translational and/or posttranslational events.