Recently we showed that N-methyl D-aspartate receptors (NMDARs) are expressed in erythroid precursors (EPCs) and present in the circulating red blood cells (RBCs) of healthy humans, regulating intracellular Ca(2+) in these cells. This study focuses on investigating the possible role of NMDARs in abnormally high Ca(2+) permeability in the RBCs of patients with sickle cell disease (SCD). Protein levels of the NMDAR subunits in the EPCs of SCD patients did not differ from those in EPCs of healthy humans. However, the number and activity of the NMDARs in circulating SCD-RBCs was substantially up-regulated, being particularly high during haemolytic crises. The number of active NMDARs correlated negatively with haematocrit and haemoglobin levels in the blood of SCD patients. Calcium uptake via these non-selective cation channels was induced by RBC treatment with glycine, glutamate and homocysteine and was facilitated by de-oxygenation of SCD-RBCs. Oxidative stress and RBC dehydration followed receptor stimulation and Ca(2+) uptake. Inhibition of the NMDARs with an antagonist memantine caused re-hydration and largely prevented hypoxia-induced sickling. The EPCs of SCD patients showed higher tolerance to memantine than those of healthy subjects. Consequently, NMDARs in the RBCs of SCD patients appear to be an attractive target for pharmacological intervention.