Neurotransmitter receptor systems have been the focus of intensive pharmacological research for more than 20 years for basic and applied scientific reasons, but only recently has there been a better understanding of their key features. One of these systems includes the type A receptor for the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which forms an integral anion channel from a pentameric subunit assembly and mediates most of the fast inhibitory neurotransmission in the adult vertebrate central nervous system. Up to now, depending on the definition, 16-19 mammalian subunits have been cloned and localized on different genes. Their assembly into proteins in a poorly defined stoichiometry forms the basis of functional and pharmacological GABA(A) receptor diversity, i.e. the receptor subtypes. The latter has been well documented in autoradiographic studies using ligands that label some of the receptors' various binding sites, corroborated by recombinant expression studies using the same tools. Significantly less heterogeneity has been found at the physiological level in native receptors, where the subunit combinations have been difficult to dissect. This review focuses on the characteristics, use and usefulness of various ligands and their binding sites to probe GABA(A) receptor properties and to gain insight into the biological function from fish to man and into evolutionary conserved GABA(A) receptor heterogeneity. We also summarize the properties of the novel mouse models created for the study of various brain functions and review the state-of-the-art imaging of brain GABA(A) receptors in various human neuropsychiatric conditions. The data indicate that the present ligands are only partly satisfactory tools and further ligands with subtype-selective properties are needed for imaging purposes and for confirming the behavioral and functional results of the studies presently carried out in gene-targeted mice with other species, including man.