Glutamate is the principal excitatory neurotransmitter in brain. Our knowledge of the glutamatergic synapse has advanced enormously in the last 10 years, primarily through application of molecular biological techniques to the study of glutamate receptors and transporters. There are three families of ionotropic receptors with intrinsic cation permeable channels [N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA), alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA) and kainate]. There are three groups of metabotropic, G protein-coupled glutamate receptors (mGluR) that modify neuronal and glial excitability through G protein subunits acting on membrane ion channels and second messengers such as diacylglycerol and cAMP. There are also two glial glutamate transporters and three neuronal transporters in the brain. Glutamate is the most abundant amino acid in the diet. There is no evidence for brain damage in humans resulting from dietary glutamate. A kainate analog, domoate, is sometimes ingested accidentally in blue mussels; this potent toxin causes limbic seizures, which can lead to hippocampal and related pathology and amnesia. Endogenous glutamate, by activating NMDA, AMPA or mGluR1 receptors, may contribute to the brain damage occurring acutely after status epilepticus, cerebral ischemia or traumatic brain injury. It may also contribute to chronic neurodegeneration in such disorders as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Huntington's chorea. In animal models of cerebral ischemia and traumatic brain injury, NMDA and AMPA receptor antagonists protect against acute brain damage and delayed behavioral deficits. Such compounds are undergoing testing in humans, but therapeutic efficacy has yet to be established. Other clinical conditions that may respond to drugs acting on glutamatergic transmission include epilepsy, amnesia, anxiety, hyperalgesia and psychosis.