Our laboratory and others have previously reported that the non-competitive N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist, MK-801, interferes with the development of tolerance to the analgesic effects of morphine. The present studies were performed in order to further characterize the role of NMDA receptors in opiate tolerance. The results demonstrate that opiate tolerance is inhibited rapidly, and at low doses, by four different non-competitive NMDA receptor antagonists (MK-801, ketamine, dextrorphan and phencyclidine), suggesting that this inhibition results from blockade of NMDA receptors rather than from the 'side-effect' of a particular drug. The NMDA antagonists were found to inhibit the development but not the expression of opiate tolerance; i.e. they were able to prevent but not reverse tolerance. Finally, the results suggest that NMDA receptor antagonists do not interfere with associative tolerance; instead it appears that these drugs may specifically inhibit non-associative tolerance. It thus appears that NMDA receptors may have a fundamental role in the development of opiate tolerance, and that non-competitive NMDA receptor antagonists may be effective adjuncts to opiates in the treatment of chronic pain.