In the mature brain, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) functions primarily as an inhibitory neurotransmitter. But it can also act as a trophic factor during nervous system development to influence events such as proliferation, migration, differentiation, synapse maturation and cell death. GABA mediates these processes by the activation of traditional ionotropic and metabotropic receptors, and probably by both synaptic and non-synaptic mechanisms. However, the functional properties of GABA receptor signalling in the immature brain are significantly different from, and in some ways opposite to, those found in the adult brain. The unique features of the early-appearing GABA signalling systems might help to explain how GABA acts as a developmental signal.