The ligand-gated ion channel superfamily of neurotransmitter receptors are proteins responsible for rapid transmission of nerve impulses at the synapse and have, therefore, been the subject of intensive research for many years. The cys-loop family, of which the 5-HT3 receptor is a member, includes the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, the GABAA receptor and the glycine receptor. A diverse range of endogenous and artificial ligands activate these receptors, but, nevertheless, the family shares many similarities of structure and function. Several important questions, however, still remain to be determined, including the mechanism of agonist recognition at the binding site, the nature of the connection between the agonist binding and channel domains, the structure of the transmembrane regions and the mechanism of ion permeation and selectivity. This article reviews recent advances in the characterization of the molecular properties of the 5-HT3 receptor and their role in its function, and assesses its suitability as a model system for the study of the above questions.