The properties of many ligand-gated ion channels are altered during development. We have characterized a developmental switch in the sensitivity of NMDA receptors to the novel antagonist ifenprodil using ligand binding assays with rat brain membranes and voltage-clamp recording of Xenopus oocytes expressing NMDA receptors after injection of RNA from rat brain and from cloned subunits of the receptor. In neonatal rat brain, NMDA receptors have a uniformly high affinity for ifenprodil. During postnatal development, a second population of receptors having a 100-fold lower affinity for ifenprodil is expressed and represents 50% of NMDA receptors in adult rat brain. This developmental change also occurred in cortical neurons maintained in primary culture. Ifenprodil potently inhibited responses of homomeric NR1 and heteromeric NR1/NR2B receptors but not NR1/NR2A receptors expressed in oocytes, suggesting that inclusion of different NR2 subunits in native NMDA receptors can control the sensitivity to ifenprodil.