Retinoic acid (RA) is essential for both embryonic and adult growth, activating gene transcription via specific nuclear receptors. It is generated, via a retinaldehyde intermediate, from retinol (vitamin A). RA levels require precise regulation by controlled synthesis and catabolism, and when RA concentrations deviate from normal, in either direction, abnormal growth and development occurs. This review describes: (i) how the pattern of RA metabolic enzymes controls the actions of RA; and (ii) the type of abnormalities that result when this pattern breaks down. Examples are given of RA control of the anterior/posterior axis of the hindbrain, the dorsal/ventral axis of the spinal cord, as well as certain sex-specific segments of the spinal cord, using varied animal models including mouse, quail and mosquitofish. These functions are highly sensitive to abnormal changes in RA concentration. In rodents, the control of neural patterning and differentiation are disrupted when RA concentrations are lowered, whereas inappropriately high concentrations of RA result in abnormal development of cerebellum and hindbrain nuclei. The latter parallels the malformations seen in the human embryo exposed to RA due to treatment of the mother with the acne drug Accutane (13-cis RA) and, in cases where the child survives beyond birth, a particular set of behavioural anomalies can be described. Even the adult brain may be susceptible to an imbalance of RA, particularly the hippocampus. This report shows how the properties of RA as a neural induction agent and organizer of segmentation can explain the consequences of RA depletion and overexpression.