Transient global ischemia induces delayed neuronal death in certain cell types and brain regions while sparing cells in other areas. A key process through which oxygen-glucose deprivation triggers cell death is the excessive accumulation of the neurotransmitter glutamate leading to over excitation of neurons. In certain neurons this increase in glutamate will potentiate the NMDA type of glutamate receptor, which can then initiate cell death. This review provides an update of the neurophysiological, cellular and molecular mechanisms inducing post-ischemic plasticity of NMDA receptors, focusing on the sensitive CA1 pyramidal neurons in the hippocampus as compared to the relatively resistant neighboring CA3 neurons. Both a change in the equilibrium between protein tyrosine kinases/phosphatases and an increased density of surface NMDA receptors in response to ischemia may explain the selective vulnerability of specific cell types. Implications for the treatment of stroke and reasons for the failures of human clinical trials utilizing NMDA receptor antagonists are also discussed.