Levetiracetam ((S)-alpha-ethyl-2-oxo-pyrrolidine acetamide, ucb L059) is a novel potential antiepileptic agent presently in clinical development with unknown mechanism of action. The finding that its anticonvulsant activity is highly stereoselective (Gower et al., 1992) led us to investigate the presence of specific binding sites for [3H]levetiracetam in rat central nervous system (CNS). Binding assays, performed on crude membranes, revealed the existence of a reversible, saturable and stereoselective specific binding site. Results obtained in hippocampal membranes suggest that [3H]levetiracetam labels a single class of binding sites (nH = 0.92 +/- 0.06) with modest affinity (Kd = 780 +/- 115 nM) and with a high binding capacity (Bmax = 9.1 +/- 1.2 pmol/mg protein). Similar Kd and Bmax values were obtained in other brain regions (cortex, cerebellum and striatum). ucb L060, the (R) enantiomer of levetiracetam, displayed about 1000 times less affinity for these sites. The binding of [3H]levetiracetam is confined to the synaptic plasma membranes in the central nervous system since no specific binding was observed in a range of peripheral tissues including heart, kidneys, spleen, pancreas, adrenals, lungs and liver. The commonly used antiepileptic drugs carbamazepine, phenytoin, valproate, phenobarbital and clonazepam, as well as the convulsant agent t-butylbicyclophosphorothionate (TBPS), picrotoxin and bicuculline did not displace [3H]levetiracetam binding. However, ethosuximide (pKi = 3.5 +/- 0.1), pentobarbital (pKi = 3.8 +/- 0.1), pentylenetetrazole (pKi = 4.1 +/- 0.1) and bemegride (pKi = 5.0 +/- 0.1) competed with [3H]levetiracetam with pKi values comparable to active drug concentrations observed in vivo. Structurally related compounds, including piracetam and aniracetam, also displaced [3H]levetiracetam binding. (S) Stereoisomer homologues of levetiracetam demonstrated a rank order of affinity for [3H]levetiracetam binding in correlation with their anticonvulsant activity in the audiogenic mouse test (r2 = 0.84, n = 12, P < 0.0001). These results support a possible role of this binding site in the anticonvulsant activity of levetiracetam and substantiate the singular pharmacological profile of this compound. This site remains however to be further characterised.