N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) glutamate receptors have an established role in the regulation of motor behavior by the basal ganglia. Recent studies have revealed that NMDA receptors are heteromeric assemblies of structurally related subunits from two families: NMDAR1, which is required for channel activity, and NMDAR2A-D, which modulate the properties of the channels. In the rat, the NMDA receptor subunits exhibit anatomically restricted patterns of expression, so that each component of the basal ganglia has a distinct NMDA receptor subunit mRNA phenotype. We have used in vivo intrastriatal injection of synthetic antisense oligodeoxynucleotides (ODNs) to examine the roles of particular NMDA receptor subunits in the regulation of motor behavior in rats. Injection of 15 nmol of a 20-mer ODN targeted to the NMDAR1 subunit induced spontaneous ipsilateral rotation. Smaller doses of NMDAR1 antisense ODN did not lead to spontaneous rotation, but prominent ipsilateral rotation was observed after systemic administration of D-amphetamine. An antisense ODN to NMDAR2A was also effective in eliciting amphetamine- inducible rotation, although the magnitude of the effect was less than that seen with NMDAR1, whereas ODNs targeted to NMDAR2B, NMDAR2C and an NMDAR1 sense strand ODN had no effect on behavior. In situ hybridization demonstrated that injection of the NMDAR1, NMDAR2A or NMDAR2B antisense ODNs produced specific reductions in target mRNA signal intensity in the injected striatum. After NMDAR1 antisense ODN injection, striatal binding of 3H- glutamate to NMDA sites was not altered, although strychnine-insensitive 3H- glycine binding sites exhibited a small but significant reduction. These observations suggest that NMDA receptor complexes containing NMDAR1 and, to a lesser extent, NMDAR2A subunits play particularly important roles in the regulation of motor behavior by neostriatal neurons.