1. The voltage-dependent block of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor channels by extracellular Mg2+ is a critical determinant of its contribution to CNS synaptic physiology. The function of the narrow constriction of the channel in determining the block was investigated by analysing the effects of a set different amino acid substitutions at exposed residues positioned at or near this region. NMDA receptor channels, composed of wild-type and mutant NR1- and NR2A-subunits, were expressed in Xenopus oocytes or human embryonic kidney (HEK) 293 cells. 2. In wild-type channels, the voltage dependence (delta) of the block Mg2+ was concentration dependent with values of delta of integral of 0.82 in 0.07 mM and higher concentrations. Under bionic conditions with high extracellular Mg2+ and K+ as the reference ion, Mg2+ weakly permeated the channel. Over intermediate potentials (approximately -60 to -10 mV), this weak permeability had no apparent effect on the block but at potentials negative to approximately -60mV, it attenuated the extent and voltage dependence of the block. 3. Substitutions of glycine, serine, glutamine or aspartate for the N-site asparagine in the NR1-subunit enhanced the extent of block over intermediate potentials but left the voltage dependence of the block unchanged indicating that structural determinants of the block remained. These same substitutions either attenuated or left unchanged the apparent Mg2+ permeability. 4. In channels containing substitutions of glycine, serine or glutamine for the N-site asparagine in the NR2A-subunit, the block Mg2+ was reduced at negative potentials. Over intermediate potentials, the block was not strongly attenuated except for the glutamine substitution which reduced the voltage dependence of the block to integral of 0.57 in 0.7 mM Mg2+. 5. Equivalent substitutions for the N + 1 site asparagine in the NR2A-subunit strongly attenuated the block over the entire voltage range. In 0.7 mM Mg2+, the voltage dependence of the block was reduced to 0.50 (glycine), 0.53 (serine) and 0.46 (glutamine). 6. Channels containing substitutions of the N-site or N + 1 site asparagines in the NR2A-subunit showed an increased Mg2+ permeability suggesting that these adjacent asparagines form a barrier for inward Mg2+ flux. Changes in this barrier contribute, at least in part, to the mechanism underlying disruption of the block following substitution of these residues. 7. The adjacent NR2A-subunit asparagines are positioned at or near the narrow constriction of the channel. Pore size, however, did not determine how effectively Mg2+ blocks mutant channels. 8. It is concluded that, at the narrow constriction in the NMDA receptor channel, the adjacent NR2A-subunit asparagines, the N-site and N + 1 site, but not the N-site asparagine of the NR1-subunit, form a critical blocking site for extracellular Mg2+. The contribution to the blocking site, in contrast to the prevailing view, is stronger for the N + 1 site than for the N-site asparagine. The block may involve binding of Mg2+ to these residues.