Pb+2 is a potent inhibitor of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors and its action is dependent on neuronal maturation. Developmentally regulated expression of NMDA receptor subunits may underlie the changing sensitivity to Pb+2. In oocytes expressing in vitro transcribed cRNAs for zeta 1 epsilon 1 or zeta 1 epsilon 2 NMDA receptor subunits, Pb+2 inhibited glutamate-activated currents with IC50 values of 0.87 +/- 0.25 and 1.21 +/- 0.22 microM, respectively, and NMDA-activated currents with IC50 values of 1.37 +/- 0.47 and 1.11 +/- 0.33 microM, respectively. In oocytes expressing zeta 1 epsilon 1 epsilon 2 subunits, the IC50 values for Pb+2 blockade of NMDA- or glutamate-activated currents were significantly larger when compared to zeta 1 epsilon 1 or zeta 1 epsilon 2 combinations. Pb+2 concentrations greater than 1 microM inhibited glutamate-activated currents with an IC50 of 6.1 +/- 1.22 microM and NMDA-activated currents with an IC50 of 6.64 +/- 3.34 microM. Pb+2 reduced the maximal current amplitude consistent with a noncompetitive block. zeta 1 epsilon 1 epsilon 2 NMDA receptors were potentiated by low concentrations of Pb+2 ( < 1.0 microM). These data suggest that brain regions with zeta 1 epsilon 1 or zeta 1 epsilon 2 NMDA receptors subunits would be more vulnerable to Pb+2 toxicity than those with zeta 1 epsilon 1 epsilon 2 NMDA-receptors, which are expressed later in development. These data provide a mechanism for the reported changes in the efficacy of block of NMDA receptors by Pb+2 during development.