Magnesium is an essential cofactor for many enzymatic reactions, especially those involved in energy metabolism. Deficits of magnesium are prevalent due to inadequate intake or malabsorption and due to the renal loss of magnesium that occurs in certain disease states (alcoholism, diabetes) and with drug therapy (diuretics, aminoglycosides, cisplatin, digoxin, cyclosporin, amphotericin B). Protracted deficits of magnesium in humans and animals result in neurological disturbances, including hyperexcitability, convulsions and various psychiatric symptoms ranging from apathy to psychosis, some of which can be reversed with magnesium supplementation, others requiring correction of the dysregulation mechanism. Although the role of magnesium in neuronal function is not completely understood, a lowering of CSF or brain magnesium can induce epileptiform activity and there is an association between decreased CSF magnesium and the development of seizures. CSF concentrations of magnesium are normally higher than magnesium plasma ultrafiltrate (diffusible) concentrations due to the active transport of magnesium across the blood-brain barrier. Under conditions of magnesium deficiency, CSF concentrations decline, although this decline lags behind and is less pronounced than the changes observed in plasma magnesium concentrations. Decreases in CSF magnesium concentrations correlate with the alterations observed in extracellular brain magnesium concentrations in animals following the dietary deprivation of magnesium. CSF magnesium concentrations can readily be repleted following magnesium supplementation, although high dose magnesium therapy, such as that used in the treatment of convulsions in eclampsia, will only increase CSF magnesium concentrations to a very limited degree (approximately 11-18 per cent) above physiological concentrations. Greater increases in CSF magnesium may occur in neonates since neonatal swine, following treatment with magnesium, have CSF magnesium concentrations that are similar to their plasma concentrations. There has been a recent resurgence of interest in magnesium deficiency and its neurological consequences due to the finding that magnesium, at physiological concentrations, blocks N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in neurones. NMDA receptors are normally activated by glutamate and/or aspartate which represent the principal neurotransmitters for excitatory synaptic transmission in vertebrate CNS. Magnesium deficiency produces epileptiform activity in the CNS which can be blocked by NMDA receptor antagonists. Other mechanisms, including alterations in Na+/K(+)-ATPase activity, cAMP/cGMP concentrations and calcium currents in pre- and postsynaptic membranes, may also be at least partially responsible for the neuronal effects associated with low brain magnesium. Further studies are necessary to increase our understanding of the neurological implications of magnesium deficit in the central nervous system.