A study was made of the effects of reduced (GSH) and oxidized (GSSG) glutathione on the Na(+)-independent and N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) displaceable bindings of glutamate, on the binding of kainate, 2-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionate (AMPA), and ligand of the brain NMDA receptor-ionophore complex: glycine, dizocilpine (MK-801) and (+/-)-3-(2-carboxypiperazin-4-yl)propyl-1-phosphonate (CPP). GSH and GSSG strongly inhibited the binding of glutamate, CPP and AMPA, kainate and glycine binding being less affected. Both peptides enhanced the binding of dizocilpine in a time- and concentration-dependent manner. This activatory effect was not additive to that of saturating concentrations of glutamate or glutamate plus glycine. The activation of dizocilpine binding by GSH and GSSG was prevented by the competitive NMDA and glycine antagonists DL-2-amino-5-phosphonovalerate and 7-chlorokynurenate. GSH and GSSG may be endogenous ligands of AMPA and NMDA receptors, binding preferably to the glutamate recognition site via their gamma-glutamyl moieties. In addition to this, at millimolar concentrations they may regulate the redox state of the NMDA receptor-ionophore complex.