The cytotoxicity induced by the transient expression of functional N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors has been examined with the use of a luciferase reporter assay in Chinese hamster ovary cells. Various NMDA receptor antagonists, in a dose-dependent manner, prevented a loss of luciferase activity 24 to 48 hr post-transfection of either the NR1/NR2A or NR1/ NR2B subunit receptor configurations, likely correlating to the time required to express functionally these receptors. Both glutamate and NMDA were potently cytotoxic to transfected cells previously protected by antagonists. The novel ifenprodil analog (1S,2S)-1-(4-hydroxyphenyl)-2-(4-hydroxy-4-phenylpiperidino)-1-propanol (CP101,606-27) protected cells expressing NR1/NR2B, but not those cells expressing either NR1/NR2A or, putatively, NR1/NR2A/NR2B. Decreased cytotoxicity was observed when a mutated NR1 subunit (N616R) with reduced Ca++ permeability was used in coexpression studies with NR2A or NR2B. In contrast to our results with NR1/NR2A or NR1/NR2B, cells expressing NR1/NR2C did not perish. Our studies suggest that expression of functional NMDA receptors in non-neuronal cells leads to a form of excitotoxicity similar to that observed in mammalian neurons in vitro.