BACKGROUND Short-sleep (SS) mice exhibit higher locomotor activity than do long-sleep (LS) mice when injected with low doses of ethanol or the noncompetitive N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (NMDAR) antagonist MK-801 (dizocilpine). SS mice also have higher densities of brain NMDARs. However, two strains of LS X SS recombinant inbred (RI) mice also show differential activation to ethanol and MK-801, but have similar numbers of NMDARs. Here we used inbred LS (ILS) and SS (ISS) mice to investigate further the relationship between NMDARs and sensitivity to the stimulant effects of low doses of ethanol. METHODS Open field activity and spontaneous alternations were measured after saline or drug injection. [3H]MK-801 binding parameters were determined in hippocampus, cortex, striatum, and nucleus accumbens. Extracellular field excitatory postsynaptic potentials (fEPSPs) were recorded in the CA1 region of hippocampal slices. RESULTS Systemic injection of either ethanol or MK-801 increased locomotor activity to a greater extent in ISS mice than in ILS mice. The competitive NMDAR antagonist 2-carboxypiperazin-4-yl-propyl-1-lphosphonic acid (+/- CPP) depressed activity of ILS, but not ISS, mice. No strain differences were observed in spontaneous alternations or in the number or affinity of NMDARs in the brain regions examined. Likewise, the magnitudes of hippocampal NMDAR-mediated fEPSPs were similar in ILS and ISS mice and were inhibited to the same extent by a competitive NMDAR antagonist. However, both ethanol and the NMDAR NR2B receptor antagonist ifenprodil inhibited the late component of hippocampal NMDAR fEPSPs to a greater extent in ISS, than in ILS, mice. CONCLUSIONS Differential ethanol- and MK-801-induced behavioral activation in ILS and ISS mice was not associated with differences in NMDAR number. Nonetheless, pharmacological differences in hippocampal NMDAR responsiveness suggest that ISS mice express NMDARs that have a greater sensitivity to noncompetitive, but not competitive, NMDAR antagonists. These differences, which may reflect differences in NMDAR subunit composition, could underlie the differential responsiveness to low doses of ethanol in ILS and ISS mice.