N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptors are ligand-gated nonselective cation channels mediating fast neuronal transmission and long-term potentiation in the central nervous system. These channels have a 10-fold higher permeability for Ca(2+) compared with Na(+) or K(+) and binding of the agonists (glutamate, homocysteine, homocysteic acid, NMDA) triggers Ca(2+) uptake. The present study demonstrates the presence of NMDA receptors in rat erythrocytes. The receptors are most abundant in both erythroid precursor cells and immature red blood cells, reticulocytes. Treatment of erythrocytes with NMDA receptor agonists leads to a rapid increase in intracellular Ca(2+) resulting in a transient shrinkage via Gardos channel activation. Additionally, the exposure of erythrocytes to NMDA receptor agonists causes activation of the nitric oxide (NO) synthase facilitating either NO production in l-arginine-containing medium or superoxide anion (O(2)(.-)) generation in the absence of l-arginine. Conversely, treatment with an NMDA receptor antagonist MK-80, or the removal of Ca(2+) from the incubation medium causes suppression of Ca(2+) accumulation and prevents attendant changes in cell volume and NO/O(2)(.-) production. These results suggest that the NMDA receptor activity in circulating erythrocytes is regulated by the plasma concentrations of homocysteine and homocysteic acid. Moreover, receptor hyperactivation may contribute to an increased incidence of thrombosis during hyperhomocysteinemia.