Chronic ethanol treatment of cultured neurons from various brain areas has been found to increase NMDA receptor function and to alter the levels of some NMDA receptor subunit proteins. Because the cultured neurons are exposed to ethanol during a period when the NMDA receptor is undergoing developmental changes in subunit expression, we wished to determine whether ethanol treatment alters this developmental pattern. We found that 3 days of treatment of cerebellar granule neurons with ethanol, which was previously reported to increase NMDA receptor function, resulted in a delay in the 'developmental switch' of the NR2A and NR2B subunits, i.e. the developmental decrease in NR2B and increase in NR2A protein expression. As a result, the level of NR2B was higher, and that of NR2A was lower, in the ethanol-treated cells than in control cells. Cross-linking experiments showed that the changes in total receptor subunit proteins levels were reflected in cell-surface expressed proteins, indicating changes in the amount of functional receptors. These results were confirmed by a higher potency of glycine at the NMDA receptor in the ethanol-treated cells, as determined by NMDA/glycine-induced increases in intracellular Ca(2+). The results suggest that the mechanism by which ethanol alters NMDA receptor expression in cultured neurons, where receptors are undergoing development, differs from the mechanism of ethanol's effect on NMDA receptors in adult brain. Changes in the proportion of NR2A and NR2B subunits may contribute to effects of ethanol on neuronal development.