Three experiments were conducted to contrast the hypothesis that hippocampal N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptors participate directly in the mechanisms of hippocampus-dependent learning with an alternative view that apparent impairments of learning induced by NMDA receptor antagonists arise because of drug-induced neuropathological and/or sensorimotor disturbances. In Experiment 1, rats given a chronic i.c.v. infusion of d-AP5 (30 mm) at 0.5 μL/h were selectively impaired, relative to aCSF-infused animals, in place but not cued navigation learning when they were trained during the 14-day drug infusion period, but were unimpaired on both tasks if trained 11 days after the minipumps were exhausted. d-AP5 caused sensorimotor disturbances in the spatial task, but these gradually worsened as the animals failed to learn. Histological assessment of potential neuropathological changes revealed no abnormalities in d-AP5-treated rats whether killed during or after chronic drug infusion. In Experiment 2, a deficit in spatial learning was also apparent in d-AP5-treated rats trained on a spatial reference memory task involving two identical but visible platforms, a task chosen and shown to minimise sensorimotor disturbances. HPLC was used to identify the presence of d-AP5 in selected brain areas. In Experiment 3, rats treated with d-AP5 showed a delay-dependent deficit in spatial memory in the delayed matching-to-place protocol for the water maze. These data are discussed with respect to the learning mechanism and sensorimotor accounts of the impact of NMDA receptor antagonists on brain function. We argue that NMDA receptor mechanisms participate directly in spatial learning.