Functionally effective neuronal circuits are constructed through a competitive process that requires patterned neuronal activity elicited by structured input from the environment. To explore the mechanisms of this activity-dependent synaptic restructuring, we have developed an in vitro preparation of mouse spinal cord neurons maintained in a 3- chambered cell-culture system. Sensory afferents that received chronic electrical stimulation for 3–5 d developed stronger synaptic connections than unstimulated afferents converging onto the same postsynaptic spinal cord neuron. Exposure to 100 microM DL-2-amino-5- phosphonovaleric acid (APV), an antagonist of the NMDA channel, during the stimulation period prevented the competitive advantage associated with electric stimulation. However, when APV was applied with a higher concentration of calcium (3 mM), activity-dependent synaptic plasticity was no longer inhibited by the NMDA receptor antagonist. This reversal of APV block of the plasticity was not impaired by reducing transmitter release with 3 mM magnesium (in addition to 3 mM calcium and APV). A suppressant effect of APV on spontaneous activity was observed, which was attributed to loss of the NMDA component of the EPSP. Activity- dependent plasticity was also blocked if spontaneous activity was suppressed with dilute tetrodotoxin (TTX; 5–10 nM), a dosage that reduces excitability of neurons but is insufficient to block sodium- dependent action potentials. These experiments bring into question how NMDA channel activation is involved in the processes of synaptic remodeling during development. The data suggest that postsynaptic activity is required for synaptic remodeling, but this activity need not involve NMDA receptor activation specifically for activity-evoked synaptic plasticity. Instead, the mechanism for plasticity appears to operate through calcium-dependent processes in general.