The characteristics of binding sites in rat cerebral cortical synaptic membranes labeled by 125I-ifenprodil, a noncompetitive NMDA receptor antagonist, are described. 125I-ifenprodil was synthesized using Na125I in the presence of chloramine-T and purified by paper chromatography. Binding of the 125I-ligand was optimal at pH 7.7 in 5 mM Tris.HCl buffer. Equilibrium binding of 125I-ifenprodil was displaced by spermine (1 mM) but not by ifenprodil or its analogue, SL 82.0715 (both 16.7 microM). Zn2+, Ca2+, and Mg2+ inhibited specific binding of 125I-ifenprodil in a concentration-dependent manner, with IC50 values of 0.11, 1.1, and 1.7 mM, respectively. The dissociation constant (KD) for unlabeled ifenprodil determined by saturation binding was 205 nM. Scatchard plots of saturation data appeared curvilinear but were best described by a single-binding-site model (Hill coefficient = 0.95), with a density of binding sites (Bmax) of 141 pmol/mg of protein. Binding of 125I-ifenprodil was inhibited by polyamines, with a rank potency order of spermine > spermidine > putrescine = 1,3-diaminopropane. The pattern of inhibition produced by spermidine was apparently competitive. Ifenprodil congeners also fully inhibited polyamine-sensitive binding of 125I-ifenprodil, with a rank potency order of ifenprodil > SL 82.0715 = tibalosine > nylidrin = isoxsuprine. It was found that sigma/antitussive agents partially inhibited specific binding, but inclusion of the sigma drug GBR 12909 had little effect on the binding of 125I-ifenprodil, suggesting this site was not involved. The binding site labeled by 125I-ifenprodil is polyamine sensitive, has a discrete pharmacological profile, and apparently is unrelated to the sigma site.