The effects of varying the structure of philanthotoxin (PhTX) were investigated on binding of the channel blockers: [3H]perhydrohistrionicotoxin (H12-HTX) to the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nACh-R) of Torpedo electric organ and [3H]MK-801 [( 3H]-5-methyl-10,11-dihydro-5H-dibenzocyclo-hepten-5,10-imine maleate) to the N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (NMDA-R) of rat brain cortex. The four moieties of PhTX (tyrosine, butyrate, spermine and the terminal amino group) were modified or conjugated resulting in 36 compounds. Although the potencies of the PhTX analogs on both receptors were higher with increasing lipophilicity and the polyamine chain length, there was considerable divergence between the two receptors' channels in the structural activity requirements for blockade by PhTX analogs. A major difference was the more critical role of the amine terminal for inhibition of the nACh-R than the NMDA-R, whereas the reverse might be true for the tyrosine moiety. The potency range of PhTX analogs on [3H]H12-HTX binding was 1070, but only 21 on [3H]MK-801 binding. Adding a lysine or arginine onto the spermine moiety increased the compound's potency on the nACh-R with little effect on the NMDA-R. Because spermine is a component of PhTX, the effects of five polyamines were also studied. Spermine and spermidine potentiated [3H]MK-801 binding, whereas putrescine, cadeverine and agmatine inhibited it. In presence of glutamate, higher concentrations of all polyamines inhibited [3H]MK-801 binding. On the nACh-R, spermine, spermidine and agmatine inhibited [125I]alpha-bungarotoxin and also [3H]H12-HTX binding in presence of carbamylcholine. The complex nature of PhTX interactions with the two receptors suggests that PhTX may bind to two sites: an external polyamine binding site and a channel binding site.