The actions of ethanol on brain ligand-gated ion channels have important roles in the pathophysiology of alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorders and fetal alcohol syndrome. Studies have shown that N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptors are among the ligand-gated ion channels affected by prenatal ethanol exposure. We exposed pregnant dams to an ethanol-containing liquid diet that results in blood ethanol levels near the legal intoxication limit in most states (0.08%). Primary cultures of hippocampal neurons were prepared from the neonatal offspring of these dams, and NMDA receptor function was assessed by patch clamp electrophysiological techniques after 6-7 days in culture in ethanol-free media. Unexpectedly, we did not detect any changes in hippocampal NMDA receptor function at either the whole-cell or single-channel levels. However, we determined that fetal alcohol exposure alters the actions of the neurosteroids pregnenolone sulfate and pregnenolone hemisuccinate, which potentiate NMDA receptor function. Western immunoblot analyses demonstrated that this alteration is not due to a change in the expression levels of NMDA receptor subunits. Importantly, in utero ethanol exposure did not affect the actions of neurosteroids that inhibit NMDA receptor function. Moreover, the actions of pregnenolone sulfate on type A gamma-aminobutyric acid and non-NMDA receptor function were unaltered by ethanol exposure in utero, which suggests that the alteration is specific to NMDA receptors. These findings are significant because they provide, at least in part, a plausible mechanistic explanation for the alterations in the behavioral responses to neurosteroids found in neonatal rats prenatally exposed to ethanol and to other forms of maternal stress (Zimmerberg, B., and McDonald, B. C. (1996) Pharmacol. Biochem. Behav. 55, 541-547).