Despite substantial data on radioligand binding to the sigma receptor, neither the physiologic function nor the intracellular mechanism of this receptor is known. In this study, we examined the effect of sigma ligands on Ca++ influx induced by N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) in single primary cultured rat frontal cortical neurons with fluorescence video microscopy. All sigma ligands tested reduced the NMDA-induced increase in intracellular Ca++ concentration ([Ca++]i) in a dose-dependent manner with IC50 values in the low micromolar range. Inhibition by haloperidol and (+)-N-cyclopropylmethyl-N-methyl-1,4-diphenyl-1-ethyl-but-3-en-1-ylam ine hydrochloride (JO1784) was noncompetitive; but, exogenous glycine (100 microM) did not alter their IC50 values. In addition, haloperidol (1 microM) enhanced Mg+(+)-mediated inhibition of the NMDA-induced [Ca++]i increase (IC50 = 0.45 +/- 0.01 mM vs. an IC50 = 0.98 +/- 0.06 mM for Mg++ alone). Selective sigma receptor ligands (JO1784, (+)-pentazocine) caused a greater reduction of the sustained phase of the Ca++ response to NMDA, whereas haloperidol and DTG reduced both the initial and sustained phase of the response to a similar degree. The rank order of potencies for inhibition of both the sustained Ca++ response phase and (+)-[3H]SKF-10047 binding (Roman et al., J. Pharm. Pharmacol. 42: 439-440, 1989) were similar. These findings suggest that sigma 1 ligands indirectly modulate NMDA receptor complex function through sigma 1 receptors and that sigma ligands facilitate the desensitization of the Ca++ response to NMDA.