Sensitization of the second order neurons in the spinal dorsal horn after somatic noxious stimuli is partly mediated by the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) subtype of the glutamate receptor. These neurons also express c-Fos immunoreactivity in response to the somatic noxious stimuli. The present study assessed the influence of intrathecal pre-treatment with MK-801, a non-competitive antagonist of NMDA receptor, on thermal sensitization following peripheral noxious heat stimulation. In addition, the influence of MK-801 on c-Fos immunoreactivity in the rat lumbar spinal cord neurons after the peripheral noxious heat was examined. Sprague-Dawley rats were subject to intrathecal catheterization and administration of MK-801 or saline before and after noxious heat (52 degrees C) stimulation of rat hindpaws. Thermal sensitization was tested after MK-801 (0.1 mumol 10 microliters-1). Fos-like immunoreactivity was evaluated 2 h after noxious stimulation in a separate group of animals. MK-801 significantly increased the thermal withdrawal threshold by 60% following noxious heat stimulation and reduced c-Fos immunoreactivity in the second order neurons by 70% in the dorsal horn. The study suggests that glutamate plays a pivotal role in the thermal nociceptive pathway and indicates that the NMDA receptor is necessary to maintain normal thermal sensitization, possibly by regulating c-fos gene expression in second order neurons.