Ligand recognition of the NK1 receptor (substance P receptor) by peptide agonist and non-peptide antagonist has been investigated and compared by the use of fluorescent ligands and spectrofluorometric methods. Analogues of substance P (SP) labeled with the environment-sensitive fluorescent group 5- dimethylaminonaphthalene-1-sulfonyl (dansyl) at either position 3, 8, or 11 or with fluorescein at the N(alpha) position were synthesized and characterized. Peptides modified at the alpha-amino group or at positions 3 or 11 conserved a relatively good affinity for NK1 and agonistic properties. Modification at position 8 resulted in an 18,000-fold decrease in affinity. A fluorescent dansyl analogue of the non-peptide antagonist CP96,345 was prepared and characterized. The quantum yield of fluorescence for dansyl CP96,345 was much higher than for any of the dansyl labeled peptides indicating that the micro- environment of the binding site is more hydrophobic for the nonpeptide antagonist than for the peptide agonists. Comparison of collisional quenching of fluorescence by the water-soluble hydroxy-Tempo compound showed that dansyl-CP96,345 is buried and virtually inaccessible to aqueous quenchers, whereas dansyl- or fluoresceinyl-labeled peptides were exposed to the solvent. Anisotropy of all fluorescent ligands increased upon binding to NK1 indicating a restricted motional freedom. However, this increase in anisotropy was more pronounced for the dansyl attached to the non-peptide antagonist CP96,345 than for the fluorescent probes attached to different positions of SP. In conclusion, our data indicate that the environment surrounding non-peptide antagonist and peptide agonists are vastly different when bound to the NK1 receptor. These results support recent observations by mutagenesis and cross-linking work suggesting that peptide agonists have their major interaction points in the N-terminal extension and the loops forming the extracellular face of the NK1 receptor. Our data also suggest that neither the C terminus nor the N terminus of SP appears to penetrate deeply below the extracellular surface in the transmembrane domain of the receptor.