The cytotoxic effects of glutamate via the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor have been suggested to take part in the events leading to death of motoneurons after neonatal axotomy. By the use of in situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry we have investigated motoneuron mRNA expression of the NMDA receptor subunits NR1, NR2B and NR2D and of the NR1 subunit protein in two lesion models leading to partial motoneuron death: sciatic nerve transection early postnatally in the rat and ventral root avulsion in the adult rat. The results were compared with a lesion model with no subsequent death of motoneurons, i.e. sciatic nerve transection in the adult rat. All lesions were followed by down-regulation of the mRNAs for all studied subunits in severed motoneuron populations; down-regulation was detectable already at early stages postoperatively before any significant death had taken place. The strongest down-regulation was in fact seen in the lesion with the largest loss of motoneurons (ventral root avulsion). The reduction in the expression of NR1 mRNA was paralleled by a decrease in NR1 subunit protein. We conclude that down-regulation of NMDA receptor subunit expression is part of the acute response to axonal injury in motoneurons, whether or not neuronal death follows, and that the susceptibility of lesioned motoneurons to excitotoxic effects should be highest early after axonal injury.