Cortical neuromodulatory transmitter systems refer to those classical neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine and monoamines, which share a number of common features. For instance, their centers are located in subcortical regions and send long projection axons to innervate the cortex. The same transmitter can either excite or inhibit cortical neurons depending on the composition of postsynaptic transmitter receptor subtypes. The overall functions of these transmitters are believed to serve as chemical bases of arousal, attention and motivation. The anatomy and physiology of neuromodulatory transmitter systems and their innervations in the cerebral cortex have been well characterized. In addition, ample evidence is available indicating that neuromodulatory transmitters also play roles in development and plasticity of the cortex. In this article, the anatomical organization and physiological function of each of the following neuromodulatory transmitters, acetylcholine, noradrenaline, serotonin, dopamine, and histamine, in the cortex will be described. The involvement of these transmitters in cortical plasticity will then be discussed. Available data suggest that neuromodulatory transmitters can modulate the excitability of cortical neurons, enhance the signal-to-noise ratio of cortical responses, and modify the threshold for activity-dependent synaptic modifications. Synaptic transmissions of these neuromodulatory transmitters are mediated via numerous subtype receptors, which are linked to multiple signal transduction mechanisms. Among the neuromodulatory transmitter receptor subtypes, cholinergic M(1), noradrenergic beta(1) and serotonergic 5-HT(2C) receptors appear to be more important than other receptor subtypes for cortical plasticity. In general, the contribution of neuromodulatory transmitter systems to cortical plasticity may be made through a facilitation of NMDA receptor-gated processes.